GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the Republican presidential race, where Newt Gingrich, suddenly ahead in the polls, picked up a key endorsement over the weekend.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: Thank you to all of you for coming today.
GWEN IFILL: Candidate Gingrich got a big boost Sunday from New Hampshire’s most influential newspaper.
“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate,” the paper’s page-one endorsement read. “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.”
That not-so-subtle shot was directed at former Massachusetts Governor and New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney, who has yet to definitively break out from the Republican pack. But Gingrich disagrees with both The Union Leader and some of his Republican competitors on at least one key issue: immigration.
During last week’s debate, he repeated his support for granting legal status to some residents who arrived in the country illegally.
NEWT GINGRICH: If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.
GWEN IFILL: While the former House speaker’s position puts him in step with previous Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, it places him at odds with his current rivals.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: That we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.
GWEN IFILL: Romney, however, once embraced the Gingrich approach. This adds to a storyline Democrats are anxious to promote, that Romney shifts positions.
This ad was released today.
NARRATOR: Two Mitts willing to say anything.
GWEN IFILL: A surging Gingrich follows Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain as the latest Republican to challenge Romney’s uncertain lead in the polls. The voters weigh in five weeks from now.
Welcome to you both.
Mr. McQuaid, should we be surprised at your endorsement?
JOSEPH McQuaid, New Hampshire Union Leader: Well, apparently, some in the media were. I got an awful lot of telephone calls this weekend and emails. But it wasn’t a surprise to us.
We watched all the candidates and watched them in these so-called debates, and selected the guy that we think is the best representative of the Republican Party.
GWEN IFILL: As we mentioned in the setup piece, we have had a different front-runner in the Republican race every couple of weeks. Is Newt Gingrich the latest flavor of the month, or is there something more enduring there?
JOSEPH MCQUAID: I think it’s more enduring there.
And I have to quarrel with one part of the setup piece which said that the — Gingrich disagrees with — in one major area with The Union Leader, on immigration. I don’t know where that came from.
We had an editorial in Sunday’s paper outlining his remarks about people who have been here to for 25 years. And we find nothing at all wrong with that.
GWEN IFILL: Why — why wasn’t this immigration deal — why wasn’t this a deal-breaker, I guess is the term I’m looking for, among so many conservative voters, even if you agree with him on this one slice of the issue? For so many people, including — we heard from Mitt Romney, we heard from Michele Bachmann — this was a betrayal.
JOSEPH MCQUAID: Well, you heard from Mitt Romney, and you also heard the earlier version of Mitt Romney in which he had given — outlined the same kind of stance both to Tim Russert and to other people.
Somebody asked me today, didn’t Gingrich’s stand go against the grain of the Republican Party? And I asked, wasn’t that what the presidential primary system was all about, to gauge the grain of the party? So we have Gingrich out there with a position, Romney out there with a position of the week, and others. And we will have to see what the voters say.
GWEN IFILL: A lot of tea leaf readers are saying that your endorsement is as much anti-Romney as pro-Gingrich. And it sounded a little bit that way from some of the things you just said.
JOSEPH MCQUAID: Well, more from what I just said than I — I hope — I thought it was more subtle in the editorial relative to people with whom we disagree.
GWEN IFILL: You were subtle, but you meant Romney.
JOSEPH MCQUAID: I did. You picked me up on that.
GWEN IFILL: I did.
However, the argument you seem to be making as well is that you are — whether you’re anti-Romney or pro-Gingrich, you’re mostly anti-Obama. And you think that Newt Gingrich is the best person to defeat him?
JOSEPH MCQUAID: I’m really the odd guy out in that soup, I guess. I think that Gingrich has the history, the expertise.
You ran a piece earlier on Pakistan. Gingrich has been saying that we really have to fundamentally look at what we’re doing in the Mideast relative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Pakistan is the real source of the issues with Afghanistan.
I think he is refreshing and wants to take a look at all of our commitments overseas. And here — and he’s a guy with ideas. And I think it’s ideas that, as you get closer to the top of the heap, you get crimped in by what your pollsters tell you on issues, and you don’t want to go outside of those margins. Gingrich doesn’t know any margins. I think he probably colored outside of the margins as a kid.
GWEN IFILL: Susan Page, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, was quoted today as saying, “Under normal circumstances, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social conservative community, but these aren’t normal circumstances.”
Is that what we’re seeing here?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: That’s right. The thrice-married Gingrich is going to be the social conservative candidate?
Well, it looks like he might — and hard to overstate how important this endorsement by The Union Leader is for Newt Gingrich. For one thing, the endorsement is made after he’s made these comments on immigration. We heard Mr. McQuaid talk about the subtlety of The Union Leader endorsement.
You know, subtlety is not what The Union Leader is known for. We expect to hear The Union Leader, see The Union Leader hammer home this endorsement for the next six weeks until the voting.
And I think it also helps Newt Gingrich in Iowa. It’s a conservative stamp of approval for Newt Gingrich that says, you’re looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich is going to be your guy.
GWEN IFILL: For people who don’t go to New Hampshire like we do every four years and know the power of The Union Leader, explain what — why is it influential?
SUSAN PAGE: The Union Leader? Well, it’s the biggest newspaper in the state, for one thing.
And for another, it presses the point over and over again. If Mr. McQuaid does what he’s done in past, we will see more front-page editorials trumpeting Newt Gingrich. And it will give a lot of coverage to Newt Gingrich, and a lot of favorable coverage to Newt Gingrich. So that makes it important.
In fact, we saw an analysis by Nate Silver today that said that The Union Leader doesn’t guarantee someone a victory in the New Hampshire primary, but it probably boosts the candidate’s standing by about 11 points — 11 points — which is a big gulf in politics.
GWEN IFILL: How — how real is this surge, this Gingrich rise in the polls? We have seen so many others rise and then fall.
SUSAN PAGE: It’s pretty clear that there’s a group of Republican voters who do not want to vote for Mitt Romney. Now, maybe they will support him if and when he gets the nomination, but they are looking for an alternative. And they thought they had one in Michele Bachmann, and then in Rick Perry, then in Herman Cain. Those candidates have all but collapsed.
So Newt Gingrich is the latest one, and maybe the last one. It’s hard to look in this field and see who else could emerge as that contender. So maybe his timing has turned out to be just right.
GWEN IFILL: At the very least, the voters are going to weigh in at some point.
Joe McQuaid, what are the voters in New Hampshire saying at this point? Are they lining up behind you, or are they still keeping — famously keeping their minds open on this?
JOSEPH MCQUAID: Oh, they’re famously keeping their minds open.
And there was a poll last week by WMUR TV and University of New Hampshire which said only 16 percent of the people who intended to vote were strongly committed to their particular candidate.
I have got to challenge Susan on one point. I will be doing front-page editorials, but the news coverage for Gingrich will be the same as the news coverage for the other major candidates, no more, no less.
GWEN IFILL: Is New Hampshire, in your opinion, a must-win for Romney, or is it worse of a loss for Romney than it would be a win for Gingrich or anyone else?
JOSEPH MCQUAID: If that’s to me, you know, it’s the expectations game, Gwen. It’s what you in the media and what the pollsters all say it’s going to be.
We have had people win the New Hampshire primary who, if you ask anybody in the street, they will say they lost, LBJ, Ed Muskie. The expectations for Romney, I would think, would be pretty high. He’s from next door. He has a house in New Hampshire. He has spent considerable time in New Hampshire, even bought me a cup of coffee at the Red Arrow Diner.
JOSEPH MCQUAID: So he’s a well-known quantity. He’s got a big, wealthy operation here.
I asked him last week why his team continued to fire at Rick Perry. This may not be true any longer. But, as of last week, he said because he’s got the money. And I think you’re going see that with Perry and Romney and big TV campaign ads. Gingrich is catching up, but he doesn’t have nearly as much cash on hand as they do.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Joe McQuaid, that cup of coffee obviously didn’t take Mitt Romney very far, at least not — not yet.
So, thank you very much for joining us tonight.
JOSEPH MCQUAID: You’re welcome.
GWEN IFILL: And Susan Page of USA Today as well.