GWEN IFILL: Now to the Republican presidential race, which has turned into a national dead heat, nowhere more so than in Iowa, where the first votes will be cast in two weeks.
From the moment Newt Gingrich emerged as the latest Republican front-runner, attacks began to clog Iowa's airwaves from a group representing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
NARRATOR: But Gingrich cashed in. Freddie Mac paid Newt $30,000 an hour, $1.6 million.
GWEN IFILL: From Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
MAN: He's demonstrating himself to be the very essence of the Washington insiders.
MAN: It's about serial hypocrisy.
GWEN IFILL: And today in this new ad from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
NARRATOR: Newt got rich, made millions off of Freddie Mac.
GWEN IFILL: As the criticisms have multiplied, Gingrich's lead has crumpled.
Gallup, which has tracked public opinion daily, showed the former House speaker's once-commanding 15-point national lead has all but evaporated, down 11 points, from 37 percent to 26 percent in the last 10 days.
Two other national polls show the same erosion. CNN shows Romney and Gingrich in a dead heat at 28 percent, with Paul at 14. And an ABC News/Washington Post survey out today places Gingrich and Romney at 30 percent, with Paul once again a distant third.
Gingrich, who has less money to spend than his primary competitors, has said he will remain positive.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: Others seem to be more focused on attacks, rather than moving the country forward. That's up to them.
GWEN IFILL: Campaigning in Iowa yesterday, he called the ads criticizing him negative junk.
NEWT GINGRICH: I will do two things. I will tell you what I stand for and what I'm going to try to accomplish. And, second, I will answer any question that comes up based on the false and inaccurate advertising of some of my friends.
But I really wish they would have the courage to be positive. And I wish they would have the courage to have a campaign in which we matched ideas; we didn't see whose consultant could be the nastier or whose consultant could run the more clever, destructive ad.
GWEN IFILL: But with yet another front-runner's momentum blunted and many voters open to changing their minds, the two-week final stretch leading up to the Iowa caucuses remains wide-open. The short-term beneficiary appears to be President Obama, whose approval ratings are creeping upward, as Republicans take aim at each other.
For more on the campaign, we're joined by Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and contributor to Roll Call newspaper, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Susan, we have been to this rodeo before. We saw the rise and fall of Michele Bachmann, the rise and fall of Rick Perry, the rise and fall of Herman Cain, now the rise and slide of Newt Gingrich. What's behind all this?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I think you have probably at least have maybe a majority of Republican primary and caucus-goers who want some alternative to Mitt Romney.
And they have gone from one of these social conservative candidates to another. And each has been found wanting. And so they go on to the next one. That -- this could end up with Romney's nomination because there's too many of the candidates dividing up this part of the Republican electorate.
GWEN IFILL: But we still see other people who seem to be benefiting. Rick Santorum got a big conservative endorsement today in Iowa. Ron Paul does consistently well in these polls, or at least he always seems to be a factor. And there's now worry that he might actually win in Iowa -- worry amongst Republicans.
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Right.
People are falling off Gingrich, because they didn't really examine him before they decided to support him. And so now he's being attacked across the board in a variety of ways, particularly as being a Washington insider and not really a conservative. And some conservatives are looking for somebody else. And they're going to a variety of people.
There's no doubt that Ron Paul is now a force in Iowa. You talk to some people, they think that he absolutely has a chance to win the state and that the race may ultimately boil down over the next 10 days to Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.
GWEN IFILL: What is it about Ron Paul that is appealing?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, he's very clear in his philosophy. He's got a core of support. And it's young. It's tech-savvy. It uses the social media. It's been with him for four years. He's run before for president.
But I disagree with Stuart, although he's, of course, much brighter than I am, so I worry about disagreeing with him.
SUSAN PAGE: I don't think this will ever come down to a battle between Romney and Ron Paul, because I don't think Ron Paul is seen as a credible nominee for the party.
There will be an alternative to Romney that is other than Ron Paul. We don't know whether it will be Gingrich or Perry or someone else.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I was talking about Iowa, not long-term. But...
GWEN IFILL: What is not credible about Ron Paul? Is it his foreign policy...
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, he's just -- there's a ceiling on -- right. There's a ceiling on Ron Paul, particularly on foreign policy, but also on some cultural issues, drugs and the like.
He is -- his support is very intense. It's very deep. It's just not very wide. And he's the kind of person who can get every single Ron Paul supporter out to the caucuses on, as they say, a cold, snowy winter night. And so that makes him a force in Iowa.
But in terms of breadth in other states, it just isn't there. But let me just say this, Susan, because you're picking a fight with me...
STUART ROTHENBERG: ... that if Ron Paul finishes first or second, he becomes a very complicating factor for others in the race, other -- particularly other than Mitt Romney. Romney would be, I think, rather happy or at least contented if Ron Paul happens to win in Iowa.
GWEN IFILL: So, what happens in Iowa translate into what happens in New Hampshire or South Carolina or nationally? We look at these national polls, but we're really talking about a primary race here.
SUSAN PAGE: I think it absolutely does. It has a big effect.
For instance, if Ron Paul wins in Iowa, that is Mitt Romney's dream come true, because it means there will be a lot of focus on that. It means that no one else has managed to coalesce and get the kind of catapult out of Iowa that they would want to have to contest Mitt Romney down the road, for instance, in Florida. So it is a complicating thing.
But it means -- I think what a Ron Paul victory would mean is we usually say there are three tickets out of Iowa, that the first three candidates can go on to New Hampshire. I think if Ron Paul wins, there are probably four tickets out of Iowa, and this race goes on for a bit longer than maybe we expect.
GWEN IFILL: We just heard Jeff Brown talk about the incredible gridlock which has now set in once again on Capitol Hill, the shenanigans happening in Washington. Does that resonate at all on the campaign trail, especially for people who are currently sitting members of Congress?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I don't think as much in the Republican race. Now, it has long-term implications potentially for the president. And I think it does explain some of the president's poll numbers inching up. And it is wonderful talking points long-term for the Democrats.
I'm not sure it has immediate impact in Iowa for the Republicans.
GWEN IFILL: What about the -- what does it tell us about the president's standing?
SUSAN PAGE: And, of course, in the end, the president won't be running against the Republican Congress. He will be running against a Republican nominee who is probably not going to be a member of Congress. But it gives him a great talking point.
It reminds me a little of what happened in 1995, when the Newt Gingrich-led House Republicans had a budget showdown with President Clinton. President Clinton wasn't doing that well at that point and going into his re-election year. They shut down the government over the holidays. We all remember that. And that gave President Clinton the kind of boost that he kept all the way through to an easy re-election.
GWEN IFILL: And there wasn't a shutdown in 2008, but there was also the spectacle of John McCain, remember, canceling his campaign and rushing back to Washington to help solve another budget crisis, which ultimately helped Barack Obama.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, this has all the earmarks of the president acting as the grownup, while the Republicans and Democrats in Congress bicker. And President Obama can say, look, you have got to work together. We're all in this together.
It just gives him an opportunity to sell himself as a leader and somebody who is above politics. And that's always good, to be above politics.
GWEN IFILL: What do these surveys tell us about how the president -- who the president would rather run against, based on what Americans are saying, Romney or Gingrich?
SUSAN PAGE: I don't think you need a poll to show you that. Just look at what the White House does. Who do they talk about? Who do they attack? They attack Mitt Romney 100 percent of the time, occasionally a gesture toward Newt Gingrich.
But it's clear that the White House believes Mitt Romney is the more formidable general election candidate. And so by attacking him now, they can either prevent him from getting the nomination or rough him up a little for the general election.
GWEN IFILL: Now, Stuart, I want to ask -- end this by asking something about something you do every year at this time, which is, you do a final column about the most amazing events or the most significant event -- political events of the year.
And that column came out today. And I just want to ask you about one of your conclusions, the most noteworthy political development.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I wrote that a few days ago, Gwen, so I'm not sure I remember.
STUART ROTHENBERG: But I think I said it was the demise of the Iowa straw poll.
And I think we might actually be seeing something bigger in the works here: the demise of Iowa. Maybe that's an overstatement. But if Ron Paul wins Iowa, after Michele Bachmann winning the straw poll, if Ron Paul wins Iowa, and we all say, well, that doesn't really mean anything, what does it say about Iowa?
So, if I was chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, I would be a little concerned here that the state's credibility is being undercut by...
GWEN IFILL: But this is not the first time Iowa has not nominated the person who went on to win the nomination.
STUART ROTHENBERG: No, but I think that Ron Paul is kind of in a different category in terms of his ability to sell nationally.
Sure, Mike Huckabee won Iowa before and he was -- last time -- and he wasn't the nominee. But I think with Ron Paul, he is often regarded for most Republicans, not libertarians, as outside the Republican mainstream.
GWEN IFILL: Agreed?
SUSAN PAGE: And, you know, Iowa -- this might be enough to keep Ron Paul from winning, because Iowa voters are so sophisticated and they're so invested in the caucuses being important, that I think this line of argument over the next two weeks might help some of these other candidates and hurt Ron Paul.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And, boy, are we going to get, am I going to get emails from Ron Paul supporters.
GWEN IFILL: Yes. I think they're already in your in-box.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: But it's nice when you two agree, at the very least.
GWEN IFILL: Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, thanks a lot.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.