JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the Republican presidential race, where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remains the front-runner with three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looked to slow Gingrich's surge at a New Hampshire town hall this afternoon.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: Speaker Gingrich has spent the last 30 years in Washington. If you think that a background in Washington and working to connect various people to Washington leaders and being in government affairs is what we need in Washington, why, he's the guy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney also urged Gingrich to return the estimated $1.6 million he received for providing strategic advice to mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich, who also campaigned in New Hampshire today, charged that, given Romney's background, the call rang hollow.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he has earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to then listen to him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The dust-up between the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination came two days after the pair mixed it up at an Iowa debate.
MITT ROMNEY: We have differences of viewpoint on some issues. But the real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works.
NEWT GINGRICH: Let's be candid. The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.
MITT ROMNEY: Now, wait a second. Now, wait a second.
JUDY WOODRUFF: While Gingrich and Romney clashed with each other, they also came under attack from others on stage.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said neither candidate was a true conservative.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: If you look at Newt Romney, they were for Obama Care principles. If you look at Newt Romney, they were for cap and trade. If you look at Newt Romney, they were for the illegal immigration problem. And if you look at Newt Romney, they were for the $700 billion bailout.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Texas Congressman Ron Paul charged Gingrich with repeatedly shifting his views on key issues.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas, presidential candidate: You have admitted many of the positions where you have changed positions. But if you were looking for a consistent position, I think there's a -- be a little bit of trouble with anybody competing with me on consistency over a long period of time.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, hammered Romney over the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: But I read your first book. And it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts, which should be the model for the country -- now, I know it came out of the reprint of the book, but, you know, I'm just saying, you were for individual mandates, my friend.
MITT ROMNEY: You know what, you've raised that before, Rick. And you're simply wrong.
GOV. RICK PERRY: It was true then...
MITT ROMNEY: No, no...
GOV. RICK PERRY: And it's true now.
MITT ROMNEY: Rick, I will tell you what...
MITT ROMNEY: ... 10,000 bucks, $10,000 bet?
GOV. RICK PERRY: I'm not in the betting business...
MITT ROMNEY: Oh, OK.
GOV. RICK PERRY: ... but I will show you the...
JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate participants were also asked if a candidate's marital fidelity should play a role for voters.
Gingrich, who has been married three times, admitted making mistakes.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said character matters.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: I think people make mistakes and you are held accountable to those mistakes, and the public will then listen to the circumstances and make their decision. But certainly it's a factor, and it should be a factor. You're electing a leader. You're electing someone that trust is everything.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, President Obama weighed in on the state of the Republican race in an interview with "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It doesn't really matter who the nominee is going to be. The core philosophy that they're expressing is the same.
And the contrast in visions between where I want to take the country and what -- where they say they want to take the country is going to be stark. And the American people are going to have a good choice, and it's going to be a good debate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Until then, the Republican hopefuls will have to continue debating one another, with the next meeting set for this Thursday night in Iowa.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the campaign, we are joined by Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and contributor to the newspaper Roll Call, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
It's good to have you both with us.
Susan, it's getting hot out there. Let's start by talking about that debate on Saturday. What is the main takeaway from that?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: You know, I think Newt Gingrich had a great debate, because he took a vulnerability and he addressed it in a smart way.
You know, people were wondering, could he hold his temper? Could he not do something self-destructive? He answered a series of attacks. He didn't look defensive. He took the air out of the tires for some of them.
In contrast, Mitt Romney took some of his vulnerability, and he made it worse, the vulnerability being that he's rich and he's out of touch, he doesn't understand the lives of regular people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: With the $10,000 bet?
SUSAN PAGE: A $10,000 -- who makes a $10,000 bet? You have got to be pretty rich to do that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, does the race change as a result of what happened?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: No, I don't think so.
I think they were all watching Gingrich to see whether he would implode, whether he would make a mistake, how he would handle the criticism. I think he handled it quite well.
Romney now has got 24, 48 hours on the defensive to explain his bet. I don't think it's a game-changer. Mitt Romney has a bigger problem. And that is that conservatives in the Republican Party don't think he's an authentic conservative. But, the for the moment, I think Newt passed the first test and is in pretty good shape.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what -- what is it that has to happen, Stu, for -- to slow Gingrich's momentum? We showed Michele Bachmann got in a good line at the debate.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, Rick Perry is on the air attacking both Romney and Gingrich. Ron Paul is on the air attacking Gingrich. It's not clear how this dynamic is going to change.
The -- you know, the Romney folks are hoping for -- I think right now they're hoping for a long, drawn-out fight, because they feel like they can't win something short-term. He needs to win New Hampshire. But, Judy, the thing that's striking is the disconnect between people out in the grassroots, conservatives out around the country and the Washington, D.C., insiders.
They are apoplectic about Newt Gingrich. They think he's untrustworthy, he's a bad manager. And yet the folks outside see Newt as the person who can carry the fight to Barack Obama.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Susan, you have out on the trail. You have been in Iowa. What are you picking up out there?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think you're right. I think Gingrich taps into the energy that people want.
He's a much more combative personality. What I hear from Republicans everywhere is not so much devotion to a particular candidate, but devotion to the idea that they're going to beat Barack Obama. That's provided the intensity in this race. And I think that's why we have seen one candidate after another take the lead in the Republican contest, because Republicans are very focused on who can prevail in a general election debate against Obama, who can beat him next fall.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, right now, it's -- they think it's Newt Gingrich.
SUSAN PAGE: Right. Right now, they do.
And, in fact, Newt Gingrich's lead is bigger than the lead of any of the other previous front-runners, Perry, Cain, Bachmann, Romney. He's over 30 percent in the Gallup poll. That is a pretty significant lead, not to say -- three more weeks to go. Things can happen. But it's a significant lead.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And it's interesting at this point, Stu. Often, at -- we are at this point in the race looking, what's going on in Iowa, who is well-organized? That doesn't seem to be as much of an issue this time.
STUART ROTHENBERG: No. I was talking to some strategists within the last couple days. And they said to me, people in the news business, if they had been watching four years ago, they would have realized that the ground game in Iowa is not crucial anymore, that if you think back four years ago, who had the best ground game in the state? It was Mitt Romney. Who won? Mike Huckabee, on the basis of momentum.
And again it's kind of looking as though the ground game isn't as important. Who is the hot commodity going into caucuses?
JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that say about what's happening this year, Susan?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think it says we have got a nationalized race. This is kind of a national primary now, not so much -- Iowa is responding to the national trends, and so is New Hampshire.
You know, it's not just that ground organization doesn't matter. Ads don't matter. Perry is the guy who has got the most ads on the air. Endorsements don't seem to matter. Romney has got the endorsements. It's...
STUART ROTHENBERG: But debates...
SUSAN PAGE: It's the debates.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it just the debates? I mean, that's...
SUSAN PAGE: The debates have driven this whole thing. Would Newt Gingrich be a serious contender if he wasn't such a good debater? That is the thrust of his campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, why...
STUART ROTHENBERG: No, exactly. I think you're exactly right. People are watching these debates. They're really watching them and they're drawing some important conclusions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And they're watching them at the White House. And we heard President Obama say, whoever it is, we're going take them on. How is the president handling all this at this point, this message of...
SUSAN PAGE: I think he has a pretty good strategy. I don't know if it's a winning strategy. It will depend on a number of things.
But he wants this to be a big election, not just a referendum on how is he doing, how the unemployment rate is, but something bigger, a choice between visions, the idea of who and what this country should be.
And I think that's a good contrast. He has to make it as much about the Republicans as anything else.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, Susan, USA Today has a poll coming out with some interesting numbers about the president.
SUSAN PAGE: We have a survey out tomorrow, a swing state survey. It's a poll that USA Today and Gallup are taking this year of 12 of the decisive battlegrounds.
And it shows that President Obama faces some big challenges. People who identify themselves as Democrats have shrunk since 2008. The number of people who think they're Republicans has grown. And on every measure of engagement in the election, like enthusiasm about voting, paying close attention, thinking it matters who wins, Republicans have the edge on all of those.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that dovetail with what you're seeing, Stu? Because you're looking at polls and you're talking to people all over the country.
STUART ROTHENBERG: No, absolutely. People are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, sort of -- the data overwhelming on this. They're not happy with the president's performance.
And so the president has to say, look, that's not what this election is about. It's something bigger. It's about different visions that the Republican Party has and that I have.
And he's going to talk about inequality. He's going to talk about fairness. He's going to talk about the middle-class squeeze. Again, these are good messages. But if people decide, I don't like the way the country is headed, one person is -- primarily is responsible, the guy in the White House, then it doesn't much matter what the president says.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meantime, Susan, the president, all he really can do is sit back and watch this spectacle among the Republicans.
SUSAN PAGE: He's got to make such a tough argument, which is, I have done a lot of good things. You're not feeling them in your life. Things would be much worse if I wasn't here. So you don't like the way things are going, the direction of the country, unemployment, your own economic situation, but it would be worse if I wasn't here the past four years.
That is a difficult selling job.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, one more debate coming up later this week, and then we will watch it all. OK.
Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.