JUDY WOODRUFF: And in a return to the night's big political story, the Iowa caucuses, Shields and Brooks are here with me in the studios of Iowa Public Television just outside Des Moines. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Gentlemen, it's good to have you with us here in Iowa.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, we have been watching these candidates throughout the campaign. Tonight, the voters are finally going to weigh in. But let's look back at what we have learned about these -- these, in Iowa, five men and one woman. What have we learned about them over the course of this campaign?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the big macro-story is that it's much more likely that Mitt Romney is going to get the nomination, because the two people who are really his long-run challengers were Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
And they have not, according to the polls, done so well. And so Mitt Romney is still very likely. The micro-story is Rick Santorum's rise. And I think that's a big story. And it's partly because there have just always been a lot of social conservatives here. They have been looking, looking, looking, and the time is up. They have to make a decision.
And according to the Des Moines Register polls, they have gone with Santorum. And the second thing is that he's not only getting the social conservatives. He's doing a lot better among people without high school degrees, who make up the majority of the electorate among Republicans. And Mitt Romney nationwide has always had trouble with those people.
And one thing, Santorum hits them on the social issues, but also on the economic issues: I'm not a supply-sider. I'm not a corporate conservative. More active role for government in enhancing manufacturing jobs and things like that.
So, his big job tonight is to show: I'm not just about abortion. I'm about -- I have got this populist economic message I'm selling too.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, I asked you about all these candidates because there are a lot of would have, should have, could haves that people are talking about.
If Rick Perry's campaign had been a different campaign, if he had been a different candidate, we'd be talking about something very different tonight.
MARK SHIELDS: No question, Judy. And that's the wonderful thing.
I think Michael Beschloss used the term road-tested in Iowa. It's the place where candidates are road-tested and they're examined. I mean, Iowa voters are as welcoming and open as any people on the planet. But they do ask tough questions. And they do make harsh judgments.
And Rick Perry has been found wanting. He's a very effective candidate campaigning retail, that is, meeting people in small groups. He's quite affable and gregarious. But he has just died in public forums. And the idea of Newt Gingrich -- at this point, the least -- he's considered the least knowledgeable candidate from the Republican side.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry, you mean.
MARK SHIELDS: Perry is, and while Newt is considered the most knowledgeable. But now there's up to almost a third of Republicans said they would not vote for Newt Gingrich if he's the nominee.
Now, that's a consequence of $3.5 million or $4 million of negative commercials and advertising against him. But I think that the sleeper story here is Iowa always winnows out, as well as winnows in people. And that's Ron Paul. And Ron Paul is leading among independents 2-1, beating Mitt Romney.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And are they going to be voting with the caucuses tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, that's the question. That's the thing I think I'm looking for tonight, is the size of the turnout.
If the turnout is dramatically big -- it was 119,000 Republicans voted in -- participated in 2008, which was a record, eclipsed 1980 -- then, if you start to see that go up, that's probably independents. And that's probably people coming in who haven't been Republican activists in the past, and it's probably Ron Paul.
You see a Ron Paul crowd, and it's like an old-time Democratic crowd. And there's a lot of low-income people, a lot of young people, a lot of old people, some yuppies. It's a very eclectic group.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We remember that term.
David, what about the independent voter? We are so focused covering this -- these caucuses on the Republican Party. And we have made some mention of the Democrats, but there is this big chunk of the electorate in the state that self-identified independent.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And the Romney people feel that's their people. There are a lot of people that are disaffected from both parties that are moderate. And they feel they're going to go to those people.
And a lot of them, it's important to remember that they are still to be won over, that a lot of people going to these caucuses -- and what they do, each candidate has a speaker. And a lot of people -- sometimes as much as 30 percent -- are still to be won over, and those people, I suppose, especially.
And that's also worth emphasizing, because there are two events here. There's the results, which we will learn about. But then there's the speeches after the results, which are even more important. Remember, Barack Obama, after the Iowa caucuses, really got to broadcast.
Then you get to tell the country what just happened. Remember, Jimmy Carter didn't win the Iowa caucuses in 1976. Uncommitted won. Walter Mondale got 49 percent. But Gary Hart, who got 16 percent, somehow turned that into a victory by how he sold it.
So, the candidates will have their biggest audiences, especially the top three. And that's really the second big crucial event tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, are the candidates talking in this campaign about what the voters want to hear about? Is there a match, do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I will tell you this, Judy. I'm not sure. I'm really not. But David -- to David's point about Rick Santorum appealing to the evangelical, or the born-again evangelical, self-identified, voters, they were 60 percent of the electorate last time. They're down to 30 percent this time. And I think that's in part that the religious and moral issues are not no longer considered, but they aren't as central as the -- even though Iowa...
JUDY WOODRUFF: The economy has overtaken it.
MARK SHIELDS: The economy is dominant, even though Iowa's unemployment rate is three points below that of the nation. And it remains so.
So -- but the candidate I think with the most consistent economic message -- or emphasizing economic credentials certainly has been Mitt Romney. And I will be fascinated by what he says tonight, because I can remember that George Herbert Walker Bush, when he won here in 1980 and upset Ronald Reagan, the favorite, said: I have big mo'.
And that meant nothing to voters. That meant nothing. He was talking about his campaign. And David is absolutely right. That's a key moment tonight. What does Rick Santorum say tonight? He's introducing himself to the nation tonight with what he says.
And they have to be careful. If they go after Ron Paul, if Mitt Romney goes after Ron Paul, which he hasn't done -- he's been very careful not to -- they're running the risk are of a third party. And nobody thinks that a third-party challenge led by Ron Paul is going to do anything except reelect President Obama.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David, are these - I mean I'm throwing out the questions that have occurred to me as I'm listening to you. Are these the same candidates they were when they started campaigning in Iowa? I mean, have they modified what they are talking about?
DAVID BROOKS: Mitt Romney's the same.
DAVID BROOKS: He's just cruising: Don't embarrass myself. Don't commit to anything that I'm going to regret in the fall. He's stayed very disciplined and the same.
Rick Santorum is nine times better, just much cheerier, occasionally tells jokes. I went to a bunch of his events. Really, having seen him campaign in Pennsylvania, a much better candidate. Just -- he was here a lot -- 370 town hall meetings will do that to you.
So, he's been the big improver. I would say Ron Paul doesn't really change. Audiences don't matter. He's going to give a speech to himself in a room or to 1,000 people. He hasn't changed.
But I think what they have discovered -- and you can tell they react to heads nodding. And one of the things you see when heads are nodding, when people tie the economic issue to values issues, when they talk about the country losing its work ethic, losing its sense of responsibility, when they say the economy is not only about the recession and the financial crisis, but a sense that America has lost some value, economic values, that's what I see them all gravitating to.
And so they do respond to those nodding heads.
MARK SHIELDS: This is where David and I disagree.
What I think the country is always looking for is an upbeat conservative. And there are two kinds of conservatives, Judy, those who view the world at five minutes to midnight, that things are bad and they're going to get worse, which I've heard more of from Santorum than you obviously have heard, or the five minutes to sunrise conservative. Things are bad, but together we can make things better.
That was Ronald Reagan. That was Jack Kemp. That was Mike Huckabee. And I don't think anybody has grabbed that mantle in this race.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I would say the tenor of the electorate has changed dramatically from four years. It's much darker, much more pessimistic. And maybe they're reacting to that, though, as a political analysis, being optimistic is rarely a bad thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One quick question about Michele Bachmann. She did win the Iowa straw poll some months ago. She was on the rise. And the polls show, David, her support has just all but disappeared. And yet she's been out there. She's hit all 99 counties. What happened to her campaign?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, people just looked at her and for whatever reason -- there was no big cataclysmic event. They just decided, not quite ready to be president.
And so she's had some very humbling events, where very few people have showed up. There's still the press gang around here. But the crucial thing is, she said she's going on. And the lesson of Newt Gingrich's career is, never drop out, because you never know what's going to happen. And that also is good for Mitt Romney, because all the anti-Romneys will still be around, apparently, in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So there may not be the winnowing out that we have seen.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That's...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will have a chance to talk about this.
MARK SHIELDS: There will be. There will be, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay. There will be; there won't be.
MARK SHIELDS: There will be.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will have a chance to -- you will have a chance to have another word on this tonight.
Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both -- Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Judy, I'm curious about one thing. You have covered many of these caucuses. And you have been to the actual caucus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Uh-oh. Please don't say, how many?
GWEN IFILL: I'm not going to say, how many?
But they're different from going to the polling place. They're different from just dropping a ballot in the box. What are they like?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I will tell you, I have covered 10 of these caucuses going back to 1976.
What makes them different, Gwen, is that voters are putting themselves on the line. They're going out among their friends, in some cases neighbors. These may be people they know or people they don't know very well, but they are publicly, in some instances, many instances, declaring what their political views are.
As this is -- as we know in our society, that's often something that people -- it's often typically something people keep private. Iowans are very proud of the role they play in the American political process. And that is something that has not changed since 1976, when I started covering the Iowa caucuses. They feel that responsibility. They feel that connection as American citizens.
They take it seriously. They don't mind being out in public and going out to the local schoolhouse or the firehouse or wherever that caucus may be. So, that's something very special about this state. And it's one of the reasons I always look forward to coming back here.
GWEN IFILL: You're going to be off to a couple caucuses yourself tonight?
JUDY WOODRUFF: I surely am.
I'm at -- as you know, we're at Iowa Public Television here, actually in Johnston, Iowa, not far from Des Moines. We're going to go to a -- I'm going to be going to one of the caucuses at the Johnston High School. So we can report on that later tonight.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we'll be waiting to hear all about that.
Judy Woodruff for us in Iowa tonight, thanks so much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Great.