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Romney Admits Verbal Stumble, but Enjoys ‘Real Organization’ for Nevada Caucuses

February 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Trying to move on from a gaffe about not caring about very poor Americans, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney told The Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston that he "misspoke." But rival Newt Gingrich maintains Romney's "boo-boo" will be repeated endlessly by the "elite media." Judy Woodruff and Ralston discuss this weekend's GOP contest in Nevada.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the presidential campaign, where the attention has moved west to the state of Nevada.

Mitt Romney was aiming today to go two-for-two, adding a win tomorrow in the Nevada caucuses to Tuesday’s victory in Florida. And he tried to move on from the flap over this comment on Wednesday.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney initially defended his statement, but late yesterday told Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston that it was a poor choice of words.

MITT ROMNEY: I misspoke. I’ve said something that is similar to that, but quite acceptable, for a long time.

And you know when you do I don’t know how many thousands of interviews, now and then, you may get it wrong. And I misspoke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a Las Vegas rally today, Romney rival Newt Gingrich said the explanation no longer mattered; the damage was done.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): So, Gov. Romney trying to recover from his boo-boo, as the elite media did exactly what Obama will do this fall and kept replaying, “I don’t really care about the poor,” which is, by the way, not a very clever thing for somebody who is very wealthy to say. I mean, talk about every possible example of what we don’t want in a general election candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite the verbal stumble, Romney appeared to be riding a comfortable lead in the Silver State. The latest survey from Public Policy Polling had him up 25 points over Gingrich.

They were followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 15 percent and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 8 percent. Paul had three campaign events in Nevada today, while Santorum spent the day in Missouri, which holds its non-binding primary on Tuesday.

We’re now joined by the man who conducted that Romney interview last night. Jon Ralston is a political columnist for The Las Vegas Sun and host of the television program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston.”

Jon, it is good to see you again.

Now, Gov. Romney told you that he misspoke after first saying that this comment, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he was taken out of context. Why do you think the shift in course?

JON RALSTON, The Las Vegas Sun: Well, I think that they were getting such blowback on this, Judy.

I mean, to say he was taken out of context is a very defensive response. I frankly expected him to say something like that and try to pivot off of that. So I was surprised when he said that.

Clearly, what occurred is that they knew this was playing into a narrative of a guy who is out of touch, the very narrative that the Republicans have created in this primary process that the Democrats are looking to exploit. And I’m sure someone inside his campaign or Romney himself said, listen, we have to get rid of this as quickly as possible. I will have to say that I misspoke. I misstated what I really meant.

He has said similar kinds of things on the campaign trail, but not as inartfully as this was, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, despite this, he does appear, as we reported, to be doing well in the polls. Is that what you are hearing on the ground?

JON RALSTON: Romney has been running for president here and elsewhere for many years. He’s got the real organization here. He’s got the folks on the ground. He’s spending money on television and at the grassroots level.

There is the much-ballyhooed Mormon factor here. Even though the LDS folks are only 7 percent of the population, Judy, they do vote disproportionately in the Republican caucus, 25 percent, 20 percent, various estimates in 2008. So I think he has to be considered the solid favorite here.

He has really worked Nevada. And so I think it’s going to pay off for him on Saturday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon, there’s been so much reporting about the economy of Nevada, the high unemployment rate, the high rate of home foreclosures. How much are those factors in the minds of Republican voters there?

JON RALSTON: I think they’re a factor in the minds of all voters here, Judy.

I mean, 80 percent of the people in Las Vegas by some estimates are underwater on their homes, either have or will go through some kind of painful process with a bank. They are looking for help. This is why the Democrats still have hope, I think, that they can take this state and other states, although we are the worst in terms of being the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis.

We still have the highest unemployment rate in the country. This state is really hurting. And so you see the president come out this week with his mortgage refinance program. And they’re going to — the Democrats are going to contrast that.

And I think this will appeal to some Republicans and independents, too, with the Republican candidates, all of them coming here and essentially not offering as much. You have Mitt Romney having come here on a previous visit and said to a newspaper editorial board here that the foreclosure process should just continue until it ends, which, of course — again, I know what he was trying to say. And he may be right. But a lot of people here, I think, were offended by that. And that’s already gone viral on YouTube.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying that’s going to hurt him and the other Republicans in this caucus vote tomorrow?

JON RALSTON: I don’t know if it is going to hurt Romney as much in the caucus tomorrow, although I am certain that there are some Republicans in this state who are underwater on their homes, just as there are many Democrats and independents.

But that is — there are general election issues that have been created for Mitt Romney in this Republican caucus, in this Republican primary process that are going to hurt him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon, what about Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul? What do you see of the efforts they’re making there in Nevada?

JON RALSTON: Santorum has only made a token appearance here. He’s actually going to have a rally with Sharron Angle this evening.

You remember Sharron Angle, Judy. She ran against Harry Reid and helped — and much to the Republicans’ displeasure — Harry Reid get reelected. But she’s still popular with a certain Tea Party contingent here. She’s going to try to boost Santorum. It’s not going to help him much. He has little chance here. He knows it. He’s only made token appearances.

Newt Gingrich has been here now for three or four days and he has been campaigning. I interviewed him for my program tonight. He seems to think that he is going to survive. He keeps saying the same thing, he’s in this for the long haul. But he has no organization whatsoever in the state. So whatever percentage he gets — and he’s second in the polls, Judy — is going to be just for the enthusiasm for the “anyone but Romney” contingent.

Ron Paul I think is the real X-factor here, though, Judy. He came in second in 2008, a distant second to Romney. It was 51 percent to 14 percent. But his folks are more organized this time. And I think he may not be showing up in the polls the way that he should. He’s been third and fourth in a couple of polls that have been taken.

I think he’s got some hidden strength. And I know this is a cliche, Judy, but turnout is really going to be important. If the turnout is very low, the two best organized campaigns are going to do well. And that is Romney, and then second, obviously, is Ron Paul. So I think that’s the real X-factor for tomorrow, if there is any suspense, is how well can Paul’s folks really do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is — tell us, what is the appeal of Ron Paul to these voters you’re describing?

JON RALSTON: Some of it is the general appeal that’s going on across the country. A lot of young folks really just idolize the guy because of his contrarian nature.

But Nevada is also a very libertarian state. It really is. And Paul is a libertarian. Yeah, he’s in the Republican Party, but he is a libertarian. And he has had that appeal here.

And his folks have been organizing here for as long as Romney’s have. They took over the state party in 2008. And they still have a lot of influence here. Their numbers are swelling. Paul had about 1,000 people at a rally at a local casino here the other night. The question is, can that kind of energy and enthusiasm do what it did npt do for him four years ago, do this time, which is translate into actual caucus participation?

You never know what’s going to happen in a caucus, too. Remember, it’s different than a primary. People aren’t in there just going and pushing a button for somebody, Judy. They’re supposed to have conversations and try to talk up their candidate. No one wants to talk up their candidate more than Ron Paul supporters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon Ralston, the man who knows Nevada politics, thank you very much. Good to see you.

JON RALSTON: Thanks, Judy. You, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Our colleagues from the PBS program “Need to Know” are also reporting from Nevada. Tonight’s edition focuses on job training programs and efforts to stem the foreclosure crisis there.