JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, reporting from Des Moines, Iowa, tonight, and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is away.
Mark, how did you read last night's debate?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, first of all, Jim, any debate where the front-runner, acknowledged front-runner, if not an electrifying front-runner, Mitt Romney, goes in and comes out of it on the other side unscathed, unharmed, unwounded, has to be a good night for the front-runner.
And the others were just sort of subplots. You could see the obvious tension between Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and that state's former governor, Tim Pawlenty, who are really dueling it out in the Saturday caucuses here. And it could be a survival test for Gov. Pawlenty, who had been regarded quite seriously when he entered this race, and has been eclipsed.
And so -- then you had Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum trying to break through themselves, each with his own distinct style, Gingrich scolding Chris Wallace for daring to ask him about his -- the majority of his staff quitting his campaign. And, finally, you had the introduction of the mystery man, Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former ambassador to China.
So there were a lot of subplots, but I think the main plot is Mitt Romney goes in ahead and comes out ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that overall, Rich?
RICH LOWRY: Yes, it's the second debate in a row where Romney has basically skated by untouched.
But the most consequential exchanges for the next couple of days, and then the campaign following were those between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.
And I think what's happened to Tim Pawlenty in this race is very unfortunate. Anyone who has met him will say he is one of the nicest guys you will -- ever met in politics. And I think the best play for him in this campaign would -- to be himself, basically. Be the low-key, slightly self-deprecating guy from the Upper Midwest who has a pretty good record as governor.
Instead, he's been forced in this desperation role, where he's lashing out at Romney and especially at Bachmann, because Bachmann is stealing his thunder in Iowa. And Pawlenty has his entire campaign now riding on the outcome of the Straw Poll Saturday. If he finishes third, he probably doesn't make it through to the end of the year. So he's got to finish first or second.
And so you saw that last night, with Pawlenty going after her hammer and tongs with a line of attack that could tell over time, saying she doesn't have accomplishments and suggesting she's not that serious a figure. But that's the kind of judgment voters make five days before a real caucus or a real primary. I don't think that's going to work here in the middle of August. And he -- I think a lot of average viewers will think why he's -- why is he being so hard on this nice lady?
JIM LEHRER: So you think he hurt himself?
RICH LOWRY: I think, at the very least, it didn't work, and he may have hurt himself.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, that this was not a good -- that Pawlenty's chosen strategy didn't work, in other words, taking on Bachmann the way he did?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, he tried it -- he tried it round, he tried it flat. I mean, in New Hampshire in June, he was roundly criticized for being too passive.
And having coined the phrase Obamneycare, Mitt Romney being the father of Barack Obama's health care plan, on a TV show, and then refusing and being unwilling to make the same statement when Romney was sitting next to him on the set, so he was -- they said, gee, haven't you got the fight or the feist in you? And he was going to prove it last night.
And I think that's the way he decided to go. I don't know if it does work. Jim, what we're talking about is a Straw Poll where we're talking about 4,500 votes could win this for anybody. So if it moved 500 or 1,000 people last night, that -- that debate, it could really alter the outcome.
And I would say, in Rich's mix, I would include Ron Paul in that top three. I mean, he has a campaign here and a following that is intense and is dedicated and a campaign that's real.
JIM LEHRER: And because of the numbers, Rich, you would agree that Ron Paul could make a difference.
RICH LOWRY: And Ron Paul and his supporters have shown the ability in the past to really play and win these Straw Polls. There's an annual conservative gathering here called CPAC, where Ron Paul swamps it practically every year now.
And what he's done is take that operation and he's going to try it out in Iowa in a much more consequential setting. And if Bachmann finishes first or second, and Paul finishes second -- first or second and knocks Pawlenty down into third, this may be the political act with the most practical consequence that we have ever seen from Ron Paul, which is ending the Tim Pawlenty campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Let me go back to Romney for a moment.
You used the term -- you used the verb skate; he skated through. What do you mean? How does -- how is Romney -- what is Romney doing that keeps himself as the front-runner?
RICH LOWRY: Well, you get the sense that he's flying a little bit above everyone else. He's going out of his way to attack the president more than any other candidate.
When Tim Pawlenty had, I thought, that somewhat cringe-inducing canned attack on Romney where he said, if you can identify the president's entitlement plan, I will mow your lawn, but I will only mow one acre of Romney's lawn, what was Romney's response when he was asked for one? Well, that's OK, just sort of brushing it aside.
And I think part of what is going on here is Romney learned from first time around that you can move your legs really fast for a very long time very early in the process. You can spend a lot of money to win the Ames Straw Poll, and it can all wash away at the end. So part of this is a deliberate strategy to be a lower-key candidate until the fall.
JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, Mark? This was a big decision he made, to not even involve himself in the Straw Poll. He was at that debate, but he's not in the Straw Poll.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, that's right, Jim.
I mean, but if you just look at Straw Poll winners, we're looking at President Phil Gramm in 1996, in addition to President Mitt Romney in 2008. And, of course, that caucus was won three years ago by Mike Huckabee. So it is -- it's not definitive. It can be enormously helpful to a candidate who hasn't been around before. And Romney had not in 2008.
He has been around before. Everybody's an amateur at running for president. Having run before, especially on the Republican side, is considered a real plus. And Romney last time out was more elbows and seemed to be recreating himself on an hourly basis, and in the process really alienated himself from virtually every other candidate on the Republican side. And I think he's avoiding that this time.
JIM LEHRER: Rich, now, the other person who -- the person who really wasn't there last night is Rick Perry, who is about to announce.
What -- how -- how major an event is this? How major a candidate could he become just like that?
RICH LOWRY: He could be pretty major.
This is the perfect segue, though. He has never run before. He's trying to put this operation together on the fly in six months, rather than 30 months, the way some other candidates have. So we will see. But, potentially, he has a lot of appeal, because he can steal some establishment support from Mitt Romney. He can steal Tea Party evangelical support from Michele Bachmann, and he can make the Pawlenty case that: I'm a governor with results.
So we will see. He has 17 percent in the polls already. I don't know whether that's solid Rick Perry supporters or that's more kind of the same 17 percent you saw when Donald Trump was very famously flirting with running for president, the 17 percent that just wants anyone who is not currently in this field. And we will see whether he keeps that 17 percent once he actually gets in the field.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, Rick Perry, of course, is an enormous fund-raiser, too, he is not?
MARK SHIELDS: He is, Jim.
As Republicans in Texas are -- want to do, he raises a lot of money. And there is a lot of Republican money and conservative money in Texas. In addition to Rich's point about his establishment appeal, pro-business, anti-tax Republicans, and his cultural and religious conservative appeal, he also was really Tea Party before Tea Party.
But I think that Rich touched on something that is very real here. There's a lack of widespread enthusiasm for the current field. There was a yearning, you will recall, earlier for Mitch Daniels. There was even a yearning for Haley Barbour. There's continued yearning for Chris Christie.
And it's reminding me of the Democrats when they were hoping for Mario Cuomo to run earlier, even Lee Iacocca in both parties, Colin Powell. So, we -- I -- we don't know what kind of a candidate Rick Perry is going to become.
I agree the unveiling, the presentation has been well-orchestrated. It's been dramatically timed. He certainly is coming in under the most auspicious of circumstances. But we will know after the three debates in September whether he's for real or he is the flavor of the month.
JIM LEHRER: All right, let's switch to the person that whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to run against, of course, and that's President Barack Obama.
What kind of two weeks has he had, and where does he stand? Is he considered vulnerable among these folks that are running against him right now?
RICH LOWRY: Oh, absolutely. It's been an awful couple weeks, an awful couple weeks for the country. I think the downgrade was a national embarrassment. And he's in a very awkward place there, because he is the president of the United States of a country that has a debt problem.
And he really can't offer his own plan, because if he were to take public this plan that he has been talking to John Boehner about and write it down and campaign on it, I think, if there are serious entitlement savings in that plan, the way he has suggested there are, he would see a revolt among his own party. So he really can't do it.
So he's in a box, where all he can do on the debt now is exhort Congress to do its work, without affirmatively offering his own agenda.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark, a bad two weeks for the president?
MARK SHIELDS: Bad two weeks for the president.
I do disagree on the debt ceiling -- I mean, not on the consequences of that vote, and the terrible turmoil we went through, and certainly the downgrading. But that is not where Barack Obama or the Democrats are going to win or not win in 2012. It's the economy.
And what's remarkable to me is that, given all that has happened, and the economy and its turmoil and troubles, and travails of the country, all the dissatisfaction, that President Obama is still in the mid- to high-40s on his job rating.
Quite frankly, it's astounding to me, and it's an indication of the level of popular support for him personally. There's a considerably widespread personal support and identification, hoping that he will succeed.
I mean, President Reagan was in the 30s at this point. So was Bill Clinton at rough times like this, and Barack Obama has never been there. So, there is a core of voters rooting for him. But I agree. Things are bad. And Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, announced today that three out of four Americans -- this is, I think, a new-time high -- feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
That is bad news for any incumbent, House, Senate or White House.
JIM LEHRER: You want to add anything to that, Rich?
RICH LOWRY: Yes. I agree with most of that. And I think there is a reservoir of goodwill for President Obama that's still there. And people have not quit on him.
If there's a double dip, I think that's when they would quit on him. And I think the problem he has on the economy also, sort of like on the debt, he's really a hostage. He's in a box and kind of a hostage to fortune. He shot his bolt with the stimulus program.
Even if you take all the ideas he's talking about now, and stipulate that they are good ideas, for the sake of argument, and stipulate, for the sake of argument, that they get through Congress tomorrow, they're very small beer in the scheme of things.
And it's -- it's -- he's a hostage to fortune on events in Europe. If they take another jag down, we could take another jag down, no matter what. And he can't get anything through Congress. And it's really all on Ben Bernanke.
And one of the disturbing events this week, in addition to the downgrade, was the Fed saying it's going to stay at zero basically until 2013, which is a sign that they are looking at economic conditions ahead, and do not like what they see.
JIM LEHRER: Just in the minute before we go, from each of you, what do you think -- speaking of Congress, what do you think of this super committee, the six Republicans, six Democrats? Do you see a compromise coming out of there?
RICH LOWRY: No. When you have a committee of this nature, and it's a six-six split with both parties, it's really -- it's set up to fail. The very existence of the committee, I think, is a sign of a lack of real political will to do something on this.
So, I would expect that they will find some savings and agree on them, kind of cats and dogs, but well short of $1.2 trillion. And then they will use that money to somewhat soften the automatic quest -- cuts and sequester that will come without a big agreement, but that is all you will get.
JIM LEHRER: Set up to fail, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I hope not, Jim.
I mean, I'm disappointed, as a lot of people are, that the people who have really spent time and effort and energy on being involved in bringing a compromise on this, Tom Coburn, the Republican, and Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin, the Democrats, and Mike Crapo, the Republican, are not part of the process.
But the leadership is very much involved here. And these are leadership picks. So, if they -- and they're going to be responsive -- and bear in mind one thing. All you need is seven votes. If you get one person to switch, you can bring anything to the floor of the Senate, and the Senate has to vote on it. There's no 60-vote filibuster or anything of the sort.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: So, the prospects of success are really inviting.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Mark.
Rich, good to see you again.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.
RICH LOWRY: Thanks, Jim.