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Shields, Brooks on Santorum Robocalls, Obama’s Overtures to Detroit

February 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the day's top political news including Arizona's primary, Rick Santorum's plea to Michigan Democrats to vote for him in the state's open primary, Mitt Romney's do-or-die moment in his home state and President Obama touting the Detroit bailout.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, remind us why these primaries tonight, especially Michigan, are so important.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Michigan is nominally Mitt Romney’s home state, or at least one of his 20 home states. And so that’s crucial.

And it’s the first time they’ve really gone toe to toe, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. It’s the first time since Iowa we don’t know who is going to win. The polls have been very accurate this year. And this, they have as a dead heat.

And, finally, if Mitt Romney loses in Michigan, a wave of anxiety will sweep through the Republican Party such as you have not seen. It’s been building week after week after week. But if he loses, then it will be, oh, he’s got to shake up his campaign. We’ve got to go to get Chris Christie out of wherever he is.

It will have a psychic effect. And then people will look to Super Tuesday as an even more cataclysmic risk for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, he was — Romney was already anticipating that today, taking responsibility for any mistakes that have happened.

Mark, no chance that we are overstating the importance of Michigan?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, psychologically, for Republicans, Judy, Michigan is enormously important.

It’s important by itself. It’s the first major industrial state where the voters have gone to the polls. I mean, think about it. We’ve had small states, Iowa, New Hampshire, a Deep South state in South Carolina and sort of a Sun Belt mega-state in Florida.

But now we’re into the industrial belt of the country. And I agree with David that, obviously, it’s because it is Mitt Romney’s hometown and home state, state of birth, where his father was governor, an enormously popular figure, that it does — it becomes more important.

A loss here is seen as a blow, and especially after Santorum had seemed to slip and slipped in the national polls, and Romney had moved. And so there will be questions and self-doubt about what did happen if it does happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, when we hear Romney today take — again taking some responsibility saying, well, if I were willing to make incendiary comments, he said, if I were to light my hair on fire, I might be doing better, what about that?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s another mistake. You don’t say, oh, these Republican voters are so crazy, if I would light my hair on fire, they would be impressed.

You don’t — A., politicians should never use the word “the base,” because it’s your voters. They’re not the base. And, second, it denigrates the voters. It’s a sign of his awkwardness. There’s been awkwardness, I know — I have a lot of great friends who are NASCAR owners.

There’s just been a constant stream of the mini-gaffes. I personally don’t think that’s it, though. I think Romney is a decent candidate. He has these gaffes. I don’t think it’s fundamentally a problem with him. I think it’s partly a problem the electorate. The Republican electorate just wants somebody true-blue. And they’re not looking at someone who is a — they think of as another Dole.

I personally think that’s a mistake, but that’s what they’re looking for, even if Romney was really good. And, second, as Mark indicates, in these states, the Michigans, the Ohios, they’re looking for a working-class social conservative. And Rick Santorum is sort of tailor-made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, what about this tactic on the part of the Santorum campaign, running these so-called robocalls, urging Democrats to come out and vote against Romney? We heard Bill Ballenger say that it’s hypocritical. Is it a dirty trick, like Romney says?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s not a dirty trick because he’s doing it out in the open. I mean, everybody can see it. Dirty tricks are usually done furtively at 3:00 in the morning.

I think it’s not kosher or however you want to put it, Judy. As Democrats, I would simply ask, do you want Republicans picking your presidential nominee? And I think the answer is no. I mean, you don’t like the other party meddling. They’re not coming in because — it could be said in 2000 that some Democratic voters really were attracted and found John McCain enormously appealing, and that’s why they did vote in the Michigan primary.

But the only reason to vote for Rick Santorum if you’re a Democrat is because you think that Rick Santorum is a weaker candidate against Barack Obama than is Mitt Romney. And so I think, in that sense, his doing it sort of corrupts the process, dilutes the impact of Republican voters, at a time when, if anything, he’s on the rise with Republican voters.

The most interesting thing that Bill Ballenger said, that they’re finding — he said many interesting things, but the one that stuck with me was that over half the voters today were identifying as — or half were identifying as Tea Party members.

Here in Ohio, where I am right now, fewer than one-quarter of Republicans voters identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. So Romney — and Santorum is running up the score with them right now in all surveys here.

So if that’s the case, I mean, it’s a problem for the Republicans going into the fall, if they’re going to have their decision made by an electorate where half of them identify as Tea Party members.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly — and this is a hypothetical, David, but if Santorum is able to pull this out tonight and it is partly due to Democratic votes, does that somehow diminish the meaning?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think so.

I’m a little dubious that robocalls work for anything at this stage. People are robocalled out. I’m really dubious that people are going to go to the other primary, to drive over, stand in line and vote unless they have some ideological connection with a candidate. I doubt it’s having an effect, whether you think it’s kosher or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay, last quick question to you both, President Obama telling the UAW today that the Republicans are — in essence, he’s saying the Republicans were wrong to blame the union members for what happened to the auto industry.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, he’s got a good case, I think.

You know, if you go back and look over his first term and the way he talks about it, the stimulus package is sort of down here, health care is down here, but the auto bailout is up here. He’s very proud of that. And it’s popular now. So — and he’s right.

And what’s striking is that the president is saying, never on defense. I’m going to run all year. I’m not waiting for these guys to shut up. I’m just going to run, run, run.

And that’s what he’s doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, in a few words, what about the president’s tactic today?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the president obviously wants to talk — he’d like the Michigan primary to go on, on the Republican side for another three weeks, because this is a rare and undiminished success, undiluted success of the Obama economic program, is the auto rescue. And it’s seen that way increasingly by voters. And he likes the fact that Republicans candidates are all on the other side and trumpet the fact that they’re on the other side. So I think it’s — he’d like to keep that in the public consciousness just as prominently and long as he can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On this big primary day, thank you both, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.