GWEN IFILL: And more now on Florida with the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, are you surprised that we haven’t heard more about this housing question in the Florida campaign?
MARK SHIELDS: I am, but I think it was in the discussion itself. And that is that Republicans are not comfortable talking about major national federal policy, particularly in a primary that’s been a debate on the right-hand side of the — even the Republican divide.
GWEN IFILL: It seems like most of the discussion about housing has been pointing the finger at one another for money they took from different people.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, that’s true.
There’s a — well, I think there’s a hesitancy on the part of both candidates or all four candidates to be affirmative about a government program. But then the argument would be the market has to clear, and once the market clears, then you can get a vibrant housing market. Until it clears — but they don’t want to say that.
Nobody wants to say, hey, your price is probably going to have to go down a little more.
GWEN IFILL: Well, they’re off to Nevada, where I think 60 percent of the mortgaged homes are underwater, so another conversation.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about what happens tonight.
Mark, if Romney wins, as the polls seem to be indicating so far, was it because he was a better candidate, or because Gingrich was worse?
MARK SHIELDS: It will be because Romney came back, he took a punch, showed he could take a punch in South Carolina and come back.
And I think it’s fair to say, regardless of how you feel about either candidate, that each of them has lived by the following creed: I’m going to spend every minute I have, every dollar I have, every opportunity I have telling you, the voters, why my opponent shouldn’t be president of the United States, and very little time saying why I should be or how I will change your life.
And I think we will say most of all about Newt Gingrich, Gwen, that Newt Gingrich’s argument has been, I’m the one guy in this race tough enough, smart enough, quick enough to take on Barack Obama in the November, and yet been whining about the dirty tricks, the unfair treatment, the ungentlemanly treatment he’s getting at the hands of Mitt Romney.
He’s whined an awful lot throughout . . .
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah.
I spoke to a few Republican governors and then some Republican senators this week. And what impressed them was the idea that Romney had that terrible week in South Carolina. And the question was, does this guy really have the fight in him to fight back?
And one Romney adviser told him, you know, you’re in a corner. You have a bottle in your hand. Are you going to break the bottle and start slashing the guy?
And that’s the way politicians talk, I guess.
DAVID BROOKS: And they were impressed that Romney did come out. And he certainly has come out slashing, both in the debates and on the air.
And so I think if you measure your politician by your toughness, he’s shown he can do it.
GWEN IFILL: To the extent that, at that the beginning of this week, there was undisguised panic within the Republican establishment about the prospect of the Newt Gingrich surge, was this a victory for them, if Romney pulls this out?
MARK SHIELDS: If Gingrich goes down, yes.
I mean, there’s terror, panic, I think it’s fair to say, on the Republican side about the prospect of Newt Gingrich being at the top of the ticket in November. I mean, the Republicans will tell you, some even on the record, but all for — not for attribution, that they really fear they will lose both the House and the Senate if Newt Gingrich is there.
GWEN IFILL: And yet — and yet expectations for Mitt Romney now sky-high.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And a lot of that is not because he’s had a good week or two, but it’s also just who is in the electorate. In South Carolina, you had a large number of high school-educated social conservatives. And that’s traditionally Gingrich’s people.
Romney does much better with the college-educated Republicans. And there’re just a lot more of them in Florida, the way there won’t be in some other states they’re going to. But one of the big things to me — I saw this CNN poll, which is representative of a lot of polls, where they ask people, could you enthusiastic — would you have problems enthusiastically supporting these other candidates if your guy doesn’t win?
And like 74 percent would have problems if Ron Paul was the nominee, and 28 percent would have problems if Newt Gingrich was the nominee. Only 7 percent would have problems if Mitt Romney is the nominee. So they’re willing to accept him.
MARK SHIELDS: But I would say this. This has come at a considerable cost to Romney.
In just less than two months, his rating among independents has gone from 41 percent favorable, 34 percent unfavorable, all the way down to 23 percent favorable to 51 percent unfavorable among independent voters. I mean, that is the key group, it’s the target group, it’s the group Republicans were sure they could carry against President Obama in the fall.
I mean, he’s got an awful lot to make up. There have been body blows and facial cuts administered to him in this battle with Newt Gingrich.
GWEN IFILL: Now, perhaps we never — they never admit that they’re going to drop out, but I don’t see any of these four remaining candidates, including Ron Paul, Rick Santorum both out there campaigning this week — not in Florida — but I don’t hear any of them even beginning to sound like they’re thinking about dropping out.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, Rick Perry said he was still in even after he dropped out. I remember he stayed in a couple days.
So they never want to say that. I suspect they won’t. But the key thing to say, a lot of people . . .
GWEN IFILL: They won’t say it or they won’t drop out?
DAVID BROOKS: I think they won’t drop out. What’s to gain?
But the key thing is, there is supposition — you hear it from some of the lesser pundits — that . . .
DAVID BROOKS: . . . if Santorum drops out, then that’s the anti-Romney vote and they will swing over to Gingrich.
If you look at the polls when they ask you, if it was just Gingrich vs. Romney, who would you vote for, Romney picks up a lot of the Santorum people. So it’s not clear that even if Santorum did drop out, it would necessarily hurt Romney all that much.
GWEN IFILL: Same thing.
MARK SHIELDS: He did — Romney was trailing Gingrich in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll just head on head nationally, the two of them. But that obviously will be influenced by what does happen tonight.
I think that the problem for Gingrich going forward is, we hit a fallow period, I mean, of chances for him to change the narrative. We don’t — we have only one debate this month, which has been his principal forum.
And, secondly, I mean he’s not on the ballot in Missouri. And organization is required in those caucus states, where he might be willing — might be able to do well, but he doesn’t have the organization.
GWEN IFILL: Well, fortunately — I’m sorry to interrupt you — but, fortunately, we have all night to talk about this, because I will see you back again for West Coast updates and for our special tonight.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. Thanks.
GWEN IFILL: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thanks a lot.