JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us tonight from Philadelphia.
Gentlemen, good to see you both. Some new polls, presidential polls in Iowa, Mark, especially the Washington Post-ABC, what do they tell us, if anything, about this contest? Especially, let’s start with the Democrats.
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think, first, a caveat. Mark Mellman, who was John Kerry’s pollster in 2004, reminds us that two-thirds of the voters in Iowa on the Democratic side in 2004 decided in the last month, and 40 percent of them decided in the last week. So this is an enormously fluid situation. Who’s ahead by four points or down by four points probably doesn’t mean much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So the fact that Obama is up by four…
MARK SHIELDS: Up by four and Clinton is down by four in one, or they’re even in another. And the other thing we have to remember, Judy, is there’s never a straight path in these primary fights. There’s always a hairpin curve, a dead-end, whatever, that surprises us. And we continue to be surprised that we’re surprised, but we will be surprised again this time.
That said, I’d just add that the internals in the poll — that is, the sense of what voters’ judgments on the strengths and weaknesses of the respective candidates — are a topic of major conversation among many Democrats. And that is that Senator Clinton is seen as less honest, forthright, candid, direct than is Senator Obama or even Senator Edwards, her two principal opponents.
And I think you can make the case, the Democrats lost two presidential elections to George W. Bush where their nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, were both seen as more intelligent, knowledgeable, and in Al Gore’s case, far more experienced than George W. Bush.
But George W. Bush won, I believe, in both cases because he was seen as more steadfast in his beliefs and convictions, more honest, and more likable. And I think Democrats, there’s a certain sense among some that they’ve seen this movie before, where their candidate failing on the likeability, honesty, straightforward question becomes a problem.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, how much worry should that be to Hillary Clinton?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think significant worry. Obviously, there’s been some movement here, as Mark said. Obama has a two-to-one advantage on honesty. And to me equally amazing was that Obama is even with Hillary Clinton with women, so that shows some vulnerability.
And the third thing that I think should cause her some worry is that Obama actually is doing some things right that he wasn’t doing right earlier before. He gave a speech a couple of weeks ago now at the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner, which could be seen as a turning point, if this momentum continues.
And the essence of what he said was: Don’t vote out of fear. Don’t vote because you’re afraid of the Republicans, afraid to not vote for Clinton. Think higher, dream higher, and vote for something that will offer real change. And that was quite a good speech.
He hasn’t followed it up with tremendous substance, but it was a fantastic speech. And he could ride that speech, that sort of message, quite a long way, I think.
Huckabee moving up in Iowa
JUDY WOODRUFF: There's also some interesting maybe movement going on, on the Republican side. Mike Huckabee moved into a clear, strong second position in Iowa.
MARK SHIELDS: I will say that matters. Mike Huckabee has made a dramatic improvement in his position in Iowa. You can argue that Obama's up 4 or Clinton is down 3 or vice versa in the survey. Mike Huckabee has tripled his vote from the summer in the same survey.
And it's an impressive performance. Four out of 10 Iowa Republican caucus-goers are evangelicals, evangelical Christians, and they are an important, important constituency in that state, and they've been up for grabs. Mike Huckabee has surged among them. He now has 44 percent in the Washington Post-ABC poll. He leads by two-to-one over Mitt Romney in that very important group.
And I think it's easy, coming back to my likeability factor, Mike Huckabee, I think, has emerged as the most approachable, the most witty, and sort of the compassionate conservative. And I think that he hasn't gotten the adversarial scrutiny that undoubtedly will come now that he's surged into this position, but I do think that that's a real story.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, David, you hear some say that Iowa is not as important for the Republicans as it is for the Democrats. How significant do you see this movement on the GOP side?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think it is significant, in part because one of the strengths Huckabee has is not only among social conservatives, but he's got economic strength. He is a populist, not to the extent John Edwards is, but a great deal for a Republican, and he actually shows some empathy for the middle-class anxiety in the way no other Republican really does.
And he's got a lot of opposition among the Republican interest groups, the Club for Growth, the more pure free-market groups for that, but I think it plays in very well for him.
Now, what he can do is he can really hurt Romney, and then that could begin to spill over to New Hampshire and all the other states and leave openings for Giuliani and John McCain. So I'd say Romney has the most to gain or lose in Iowa for the Republicans.
One other factor, though, I think is worth emphasizing: The caucus system is a very complicated system, and we're never quite sure who's going to come out. And I always think it's extremely crucial to look at who has already participated in the caucus process.
On the Democratic side, it's the Edwards people. They've already been there, so you're pretty confident that they will actually come out on caucus night, unlike the Obama and the Clinton people. On the Republican side, those evangelicals, many of whom are swinging to Huckabee, they've already been through the process. So you're likely to think that they will come out, even on a cold January night.
In-fighting on both sides
JUDY WOODRUFF: I was reading today -- I guess it was an A.P. story -- that Hillary Clinton has a buddy system going, where experienced caucus-goers can bring a friend to build up her turnout.
MARK SHIELDS: It is rather daunting to go to those caucuses for the first time, because you have to stand up in front of neighbors, friends, and relatives...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Publicly.
MARK SHIELDS: ... and declare yourself. I mean, your boss might be on the other side or, you know, your in-laws or whatever. And it's a difficult thing if you haven't been through it before.
I'd just add one thing to the point David made about Iowa and the two parties. I think it's more important for the Democratic side, because to a considerable degree the premise of Senator Clinton's candidacy has been the inevitability. Her campaign trumpets her endorsements and the polls, she's leading in state after state nationally. And if she were to stumble there, I think it becomes more important on the Democrats.
There's no clear Republican leader. Obviously, Governor Romney is basing his nomination pursuit on winning Iowa and New Hampshire. And if he fails to win Iowa, that throws a monkey wrench into his plans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Just one other quick question, on the Democratic and Republican side, you're seeing some real, I guess you could say, intra-party fighting going on. You've got Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama going after each other more openly, you know, she criticizing his foreign policy experience. On the Republican side, you've got Romney and Giuliani trying to sort of out anti-immigrant one another. Is this likely to play well with voters, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I think people want their candidate to be a fighter. You're not running for "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." And I think Obama did himself enormous credit in the last debate when he really looked coldly at Hillary Clinton. You got the sense they really do not like each other.
And whoever did well in the words of the debate, the body language was frigid, and I think for a lot of people who are suspicious or uncomfortable with Hillary Clinton, but want somebody to really stand up and show them how to be uncomfortable with her, he did that with the language.
And on the Republican side, I mean, I happen to think there's incredible hypocrisy on the subject of immigration. I think Rudy Giuliani is the most pro-immigration candidate probably running in the past 20 years, and now he's pretending to be something entirely different, to his discredit.
But people want to see these guys fight, and that's what we've come down to in the last 40 or so days.
MARK SHIELDS: I would commend -- which I very rarely do, and I don't think I've ever done before -- commend David's column today in the New York Times on the subject of the Republicans, and particularly Giuliani on immigration.
I do think there's a risk, however, on the Democratic side between Obama and Clinton. If they get into a knockdown, drag-out, "Your mother wears army shoes, and you double parked outside the orphanage on Christmas Eve," or whatever the charges, go back and forth, if that happens, Judy, there's a good chance, I believe, for a John Edwards, a Bill Richardson, or somebody else with a positive message to close fast in the last three weeks.
I mean, I've seen it happen time and again. We saw it in Iowa in 2004 between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean. We saw it in California in the primary in 1998 for governor, when Gray Davis, badly outspent, beat Jane Harman and Al Checchi, who had millions between them.
I do think that there is a chance, if they really get into a drag-out, knockdown, I think that positive message to emerge.
Economy as election issue
JUDY WOODRUFF: David, I want to ask you about something earlier in the show. Jeff Brown interviewed two economy experts, and we had a pretty gloomy forecast about what's coming, if this housing crunch could become a credit crunch. We're already watching the price of oil go up. You know, we've already watched what's happened in housing. At what point does this become an issue out on the campaign trail?
DAVID BROOKS: If we had a recession -- I tried to park at the mall today, and I was terrified to find that I could park at the mall. Normally, I can't get any parking spaces. Now, maybe that's a sign of a major downturn.
What strikes me about the politics of it is, if we do hit a recession, say, in six months or so, the candidates are going to have to come with some sort of stimulus package. And normally for Republicans, that's the tax cuts. For Democrats, it's likely to be spending increases and jobs programs.
With the fiscal situation the way it is, both those courses are extremely risky, and I think voters will be very intolerant of them. So you could have candidates who really are powerless in the face of this sort of recession, which would be interesting.
MARK SHIELDS: I think the Republicans are at a real disadvantage on the economy. The Republican prescriptions -- David's right -- I mean, have been tax cuts. And there's a growing sense in the country of the disparity between those who are quite well off, the very few at the very top, and the rest of people who are feeling that their own economic status is not improving. It's, in fact, deteriorating.
Then, secondly, I would say the Republican prescription of deregulation. Well, when you go to Toys-R-Us and they ask you whether you want to go to the leaded or unleaded toy section, I mean, that's not a case to be made for less regulation, less involvement of government, and just leave it to the free market.
So I really do think that the Republicans are at a disadvantage. David's right. The Democrats will have to come up with some prescriptions, and the fiscal restraints are serious.
Upcoming Mideast peace talks
JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick, different subject, David. Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has written a book. It's not coming out until the spring, but we learned in the last few days that, among other things, he says President Bush may have been one of those who misled him about what the White House was doing in this CIA leak case, Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame. How significant?
DAVID BROOKS: I don't think it's particularly significant. I've always thought the Plame scandal was a scandal that obsessed a lot of us who knew all the participants, but I've never seen it resonate out in the country. I've never heard a candidate asked about it in a town meeting. So I've always thought this was a minor thing, and this campaign will not be about George Bush.
MARK SHIELDS: It won't be about George Bush, if Republicans have their way. I mean, the past eight years, are you better off than you were eight years ago?
I think what struck me -- I mean, he pardons himself, does Scott McClellan, and says that he was misled, and he sounds, in the brief excerpts and a couple of interviews, as being a little bitter, and understandably so, if anybody is sent out to lie, and obviously both Libby and Rove, according to his testimony and the testimony of others, did lie to him about their own involvement in trying to get the identity of Valerie Plame public and her association with Joe Wilson.
I do think it raises just further questions about the lack of curiosity on the part of the president. And I think that's a -- you know, that's just an aspect. I mean, at what point did he become angry that or did he become angry that Libby, and Rove, and the vice president, and his chief of staff were involved? Maybe he didn't.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick, well, we may not even have time to do this. Middle East peace conference coming up next week, Annapolis, just very quick from both of you, stakes for the administration, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it could be quite significant. The key issue there is Syria. This is about trying to build a coalition against Iran. If they can turn Syria, make them more anti-Iranian, that would be a big win. The price might be steep, though.
MARK SHIELDS: Stakes are high, expectations are low. I mean, I think prayers and hopes are there, but realistic expectation of success is pretty limited.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks in Philadelphia, thank you both for being here on this day after Thanksgiving. We appreciate it.