RAY SUAREZ: And now to the Republican presidential campaign, with just a few days before voters across the country weigh in.
Kwame Holman has our report.
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates largely were focused on the 10 states that vote on Super Tuesday. But Mitt Romney took time to swing through Bellevue, Wash., hoping to secure a win in tomorrow's caucuses there.
MITT ROMNEY (R): There going to be a bunch of states that are going to make their mind up in the next couple of days, but you guys are first. And so your voice is going to be heard.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MITT ROMNEY: It will just make a big difference, so please make sure and go to the caucus site.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MITT ROMNEY: Get your friends to do the same thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ron Paul also was in Washington, speaking in Spokane.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: You know, things have been going very well, but we keep coming back to Washington because we expect to do real well here.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KWAME HOLMAN: From the Pacific Northwest, Romney headed to Ohio, a critical Super Tuesday prize, where Rick Santorum held a small lead in a new poll.
Santorum appealed for support today in Chillicothe.
RICK SANTORUM (R): We have a chance to make a statement that we want someone who is a conservative in their heart, in their soul, in their mind, someone who's not afraid to stand up and talk about all of the issues.
KWAME HOLMAN: In a press release, but not on the stump, Santorum also criticized Romney for a 2002 video. It showed him campaigning for governor of Massachusetts and boasting about getting federal funds, something he's slammed Santorum for in the past.
MITT ROMNEY: The money is in Washington. And I have learned from my Olympic experience that, if you have people that really understand how Washington works and have personal associations there, you can get money to help build economic development opportunities.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich campaigned again in Georgia, the state he once represented in Congress. He went after both Romney and Santorum.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): Unlike Gov. Romney, I'm not going to go to Washington to manage the decay. And unlike Sen, Santorum, I'm not going to Washington to join the team. I want to create a new team called the American people who force dramatic bold, dramatic change on Washington.
KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia shaped up as a must-win for Gingrich in his bid to stay alive in the Republican race.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us finally tonight to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
MARK SHIELDS: Jeffrey.
How important was it, David?
DAVID BROOKS: It was important. And it makes him the presumptive nominee, I think, again. And so I think it was partly his victory, but mostly Santorum's defeat.
JEFFREY BROWN: In what sense?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think Santorum had a head of steam going, but then he went down into social conservative territory in that final week.
And so you see the wall building around his campaign. He had the social conservatives, but he sort of lost some outreach to people outside that ideological vanguard. And that sort of hemmed him in. And so if you look especially among women, Republican women went more for Romney.
And so we have a classic confrontation which we have seen in races before, where Santorum has the more downscale voters, Romney the more upscale. And overall there are just more Romney type of voters than there are Santorum voters. That doesn't mean it will be the case in Ohio. Ohio is a little like Michigan, but a little more downscale. So Santorum may be able to pull something off in that state.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, before you get to Ohio, what is your read on Michigan? How important. . .
MARK SHIELDS: Rick Santorum blew his chance. He will look back on Michigan as the missed opportunity of his public career - David's right -- by his dwelling on issues, abandoning the very narrative that had brought him to where he was, the grandson of the miner, the blue-collar Republican who was concerned with manufacturing, with those who weren't part of the country club set.
And he did that. This isn't a man who doesn't have a chip on his shoulder. He has a two-by-four on his shoulder. And he goes after the president on -- accused him of snobbery for wanting people to go to college and people wanting their children to go to college. And many of the people he's trumpeting as heroes, those who spend long days in difficult physical labor, want -- most want their children to go to college.
And then doing the unthinkable, attacking the icon of John Kennedy before the Houston ministers when, at a time of anti-Catholicism in the country, when there was a lot of it, he, the first Catholic ever elected, had to go into foreign, alien territory and make the case that the pope wasn't packing up to move to the White House, and accomplished it without losing his integrity, saying that made him throw up, that sort of stuff was just -- it's not kind of thing you expect in a bad lieutenant governor's race, let alone a good presidential race.
JEFFREY BROWN: So now we look forward to Super Tuesday and Ohio. And you saw Kwame say Rick Santorum seems to have a slight lead there.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what are the stakes there now for him?
DAVID BROOKS: Slight, though diminishing. So, Santorum had a much bigger lead. It's sort of narrowed since the Michigan win.
I fundamentally think right now Romney can afford to lose Ohio. He's going to lose a bunch of states, probably, some of the Southern states. And so I think he can afford to do that, because he's basically established two things, first, as I say, a sort of identity with the upscale Republican voters, of whom there are a lot just in state after state.
And, second, he tends to be acceptable to different -- almost all parts of the party. Among pretty conservative voters, he does okay, among mainstream voters, among moderate voters. There's a -- very conservative, he doesn't do okay. But among the center of the party, he does okay.
So, he's in the enviable position of being able to survive some defeats. The downside for where he is right now is that he has lost what he had a month ago, which was a clear narrative of who he was that was appealing to independents. He has now become much more conservative, has a tax plan that is much more filled with debt, because it really doesn't pay for the tax cuts. And so he has made himself a weaker candidate for the general election.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what of Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Santorum himself? You said. . .
MARK SHIELDS: Sure.
JEFFREY BROWN: . . . Romney can afford to lose.
Can they afford to lose?
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, I'm not sure he can afford to lose, because I think it saps enthusiasm.
That little video that Kwame showed in the setup piece of Mitt Romney in 2002 talking about raiding the public treasury, looking like Don Draper out of Mad Men, didn't he? I mean, really, a striking similarity.
MARK SHIELDS: But that undermines his narrative against Santorum and Gingrich.
JEFFREY BROWN: Who is the insider?
MARK SHIELDS: They're the insider. They're the ones who are corrupted by all those years on the banks of the Potomac and staying inside the cloistered Beltway, and he was the outsider, the white knight. It was a little bit tarnished.
Ron Paul has to win somewhere. People ask, what's his motive? Does he want a convention speech? I don't know what his motive is. I think he wants to influence policy. I think he wants some vindication. He is the only candidate in the field, Jeff, who has not had to revisit his positions, has not had to rewrite his record, has not had to try to repudiate past statements. He's been consistent.
But he's got to win. And Washington State, where he finally is going after Romney, as well as both Gingrich and Santorum, it may be his best chance. Idaho, he's -- they're spending some resources on. Newt Gingrich has to win Georgia. He probably -- it looks like a three-way race. Santorum is giving him a real tussle there.
But he needs -- he really needs a victory in Georgia, and an impressive victory, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: You see the same stakes for. . .
DAVID BROOKS: I guess I do.
I'm not sure Ron Paul has to win as much. I think if he can rack up delegates -- and he's paying a lot of attention to delegates -- if he can just get a lot of delegates, he'll emerge at the convention. There will be a lot of people on the floor with Ron Paul signs. And I think that's more or less what he wants in terms of future, influencing the party.
Gingrich, he has said he has to win Georgia. But he still has this money sitting out there. And the oddity of the thing is, because of Citizens United and all these super PACs, candidates who lose, as long as they have a couple rich billionaires, or maybe even only one, they can keep going.
And so the perversity of Citizens United is, it prolongs primary campaigns. It makes them tougher and uglier for the party. And the real perversity is in the short term. I don't know how it will be election after election. Right now, it's all helping Barack Obama by making the Republicans mutually unattractive.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's turn to him. He was out in the country this week, a big speech to the UAW. And part of the narrative for him seems to be, look, things are getting better.
MARK SHIELDS: It did.
I think the president would like to keep the Ohio and Michigan primaries going in perpetuity. . .
MARK SHIELDS: . . . because, you know, as one leading Republican in Ohio told me who was out there this week, he said the auto thing is working for him here. It helps the president.
JEFFREY BROWN: He was able to say, we went in and we did something.
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. There's not a lot of mention about other, necessarily, initiatives, but this is one that Americans celebrate, each day, the further good news from the auto industry.
And the president, I would -- don't think it's morning in America. It's no longer midnight in America, and maybe there's a hint of dawn, but I think so that there's a little bit of getting ahead of the story. But I think things are improving, and that's good. I think identifying with optimism is always good for any leader, and picking up on the sound that Clint Eastwood articulated so well at the halftime of the Super Bowl, I think building on that, with the reality of what's working in both Michigan and in the Midwest in general, and Ohio in particular.
JEFFREY BROWN: Does the president have to be careful with this message because of potential dangers ahead?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, yes, obviously. He lauded the Chevy Volt, and Chevy just announced the Volt is suspending production for I think five weeks because of slow sales. So you do have to worry about getting out in front.
And I would say the political mood has gotten a little out in front. There's a mood now that Obama is cruising to victory, the Republicans are sunk.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really? I mean, you sense that?
DAVID BROOKS: Certainly, a lot of Republicans feel that, and even a lot of Democrats are beginning to feel, oh, yes, we're going to win this thing.
And that's too far out front. If you still look at fundamentals, is the country headed in the right direction, they're still very negative. If you look at things like the economy may slip back, there's still some expectation of slow growth for the remainder of the year.
So, the mood has shifted a little too far. I had a very smart friend who's a Democratic consultant said, Romney is going to look dead six times between now and November, but he will keep drifting back, because fundamentally the country really does want change, and Obama's central policies, health care, stimulus, are still fundamentally unpopular. And so things will look bad for Republicans, but it's too soon to say. . .
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, is it your sense that the Obama folks in the campaign know this, that they can't get too far ahead of themselves?
MARK SHIELDS: I think there is.
But they've been down so long, that, now that they're up, they're feeling pretty good, I think. I agree with David. But sort of the conventional wisdom, Jeff, just a matter of four months ago was that Obama was gone. Republicans were quite bullish. In private, they would talk about they couldn't wait to get him.
Now those same Republicans are pretty glum. I mean, they've found that Romney has not caught on. After two campaigns, he still stumbles as he did over the question about the Roy Blunt amendment in the Senate this week. He's did that -- he's done it time and again. This was on the -- in the aftermath of his great victories in Arizona and Michigan.
He comes into Ohio and stumbles on that. So there's a certain loss of confidence there. But I don't think there's any question David's right that, between $5-a-gallon gasoline, and Democrats will not be nearly as bullish.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just a couple of minutes left, but just to pick up on that, because while we're talking about domestic events, in the meantime, the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth put it, right?
Syria, we just talked about at the beginning of the program, Afghanistan, Iran, a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu for the president coming up, how do all these things bubble up into the world that we're talking about of politics and. . .
DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, thanks for bringing Wordsworth into it. You've elevated our tone here.
JEFFREY BROWN: I'm doing the best I can.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It's tough.
Well, to me, the most important thing globally that Barack Obama did this week was give an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic where he talked about Iran. And what was striking about the interview was, he said, it's unacceptable, in terms I think bolder than he's ever used before, for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It will not happen.
And he really sent the message to Israel, we have got your back and we're not bluffing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Strong words.
DAVID BROOKS: And so part of that was to hold the Israelis off from doing anything rash.
But part of it really was laying down red lines, as they say. And it was quite a bold, quite a sophisticated interview. It's worth reading online, but quite a bold statement by the president, saying, it's not going to happen. It's just not going to happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is ahead of a meeting, the AIPAC meeting. . .
JEFFREY BROWN: The AIPAC meeting and a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree.
I thought the interview is well worth reading. But the president, I thought, was just sending a message to both sides that we're serious about this, both Iran and Israel. Israel, don't act. And, Iran, you better be very careful.
At the same time, we're looking at our third potential war -- at least, that's being rumored -- in 11 years. And is it too much to ask that we have a public debate on this, that it not be conducted in interviews with distinguished journalists or just on speculation?
I mean, is it too much too ask that the president make a case for sending Americans into harm's way, and that the Congress of the United States, especially with this fever about the Constitution and return to the Constitution, that maybe declaring war or debating whether we go to war is timely?
It's just -- this is -- you know, we seem to be just sort of elliptically heading into a confrontation, and a serious one.
JEFFREY BROWN: But your sense is that now is the time to have that?
MARK SHIELDS: Now is the time to have it. I really do believe that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it. . .
DAVID BROOKS: You know, I agree with that. I don't think short-term sanctions are going to work to deter Iran.
I'm very dubious about bombing Iran. I don't think anything's going to work, to be honest. So, I assumed, well, we just learn to live with a nuclear program. But, apparently, that's not going to happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, as always, thanks a lot.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.