JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
David, from Iowa, do you have a big-picture portrait of the setting, the scene there tonight?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are some human interest stories.
I got to see Newt Gingrich cry today, something I had never seen before. He was asked some very personal questions about his life, and he talked about how's sadder and slower than he used to be. And then he was asked about his mom, and his face just dissolved in tears.
And, you know, the candidates are very tired. Gingrich's numbers are falling. They're under a lot of pressure. And so you got to see that human element.
The big thing that comes from all the different campaigns is a sense of looking backward. There's a theme in almost every single race, which is America has lost something that it once had, and so we have to look backward. It's about restoration, restoring old values. We've strayed.
And this is a theme which is sort of a negative and pessimistic theme, an almost apocalyptic theme that one finds in Mitt Romney. One finds it in Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul. It's all about, we had this magic, and we've lost it.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see the big picture, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the point David made is one worth repeating.
And that is, American campaigns are about the future. And this campaign has really been an awful lot about the past. And it's kind of fascinating to see sort of like Rick Santorum really evolve from nowhere after campaigning 99 counties, doing the classic meeting voters and so forth.
But absent from his message that I get is any upbeat. I mean, there's sort of a gloom and doom to it. But I think, Jim, this has been a remarkable race. At separate times during this year, six different candidates have led in the polls in Iowa. So, you know, it's up for grabs. And it's very much -- Tuesday will determine who goes forward. I mean, some candidacies will end just outside of the Des Moines Airport on Wednesday morning.
JIM LEHRER: All right, let's talk about Romney for a moment, beginning with you, David. How do you read the situation on Romney right now, where he stands and what his prospects are in Iowa?
DAVID BROOKS: He's exuding confidence. I think his people are exuding confidence.
I went to a rally this morning in the rain, and he was he was with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. And it was just a smooth, effective, not-too-long, but sort of a corporate race. It was like George Bush in year 2000.
And what's interesting is the tactic he's taking. It's very short on policy. It's very long on patriotism. He talks about driving across the country looking at the national parks. He talks -- he sings, or at least recites, some verses from "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's as if he's running to be Tom Sawyer.
And I think it's a way to establish a connection with voters, even despite questions they may have about Mormonism or anything else. I think it's a way to distinguish, in his eyes, between him and Barack Obama. He's more mainstream.
And then, again, this theme of returning, as -- posing as Tom Sawyer, he's returning to some earlier values. And, you know, that may play this year. Mark is absolutely right. Rick Santorum and a lot of the candidates are very negative, the guy who won it four years ago, Mike Huckabee, very positive. But the mood here has darkened appreciably. And maybe they're in tune with what the voters are hearing right now.
JIM LEHRER: But, Mark, you heard what Judy said, that -- her feeling was that the polls show that there's a cap. That cap is still there for Romney. It's working to his advantage in Iowa because everybody else is so split up, right?
MARK SHIELDS: That's right, Jim. Nobody has been able to consolidate, for example, the religious conservative vote, although it seems that Rick Santorum has made great inroads there.
But, no, there seems to be a ceiling on Mitt Romney. It was kind of fascinating. At the beginning of the month of December, in the Gallup poll, he trailed Newt Gingrich 37 to 23, you know, 14-point deficit.
JIM LEHRER: That's big.
MARK SHIELDS: He now leads Newt Gingrich 27-22. All right, now, it means Gingrich has plummeted and all the rest of it. Romney has just moved up, though -- he just broke the 25-point barrier.
I think what Romney's campaign has been about is not-so-great expectations. They have tried to lower the expectations in Iowa all year. But David's right. I think there's a sense now that they could win in Iowa. And -- or even if Ron Paul wins, that's not the worst thing in the world to them, they feel, in the long run.
But if they can score -- the knockout punch in both Iowa and New Hampshire would do for him, the Romney people feel, what it did for George W. Bush in 2000, when he sewed up the Republican nomination, essentially, in 2000 -- I'm sorry -- in 2004, when John Kerry won both Iowa and New Hampshire. Of course, in 2000, he lost to John McCain in New Hampshire.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARK SHIELDS: But that one-two punch is really formidable.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, about Ron Paul, David, as Mark just said, Ron Paul's up there. And what -- what is that going to mean? If we don't -- say he wins. That's one thing. But even if he comes in a close second, what's it going to mean for the race generally for Ron Paul to do that well in Iowa?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the thing the Romney people like is their two main rivals right now are Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
People think Gingrich's campaign might have legs or a Rick Perry campaign might have legs, but I don't think they're too worried about Santorum and Paul having legs.
So, having rivals like that is good for the Romney camp. The Paul people are young. They're organized. They're very diverse. There are some veterans, some older people, a lot of students, a lot of gold bugs, some people who want drug legalization. It's about as diverse a group of people as you can possibly imagine.
And there's a supposition that Paul, like Santorum, probably is under-polling, that there are more people and they're more mobilized, both in the libertarian camp and the social conservative camp. And, so, historically, people in those camps have done a little better than the final polls.
So there's upside for him. And he -- it's funny. The way he campaigns, he campaigns like the audience isn't there. He gives his talks, whether they're applauding, not, listening, not. He's going to tell you what he thinks. So, it's -- there's no real superstar. There's no stump superstar who really can galvanize a crowd among this group, the way Huckabee did, the way John Edwards did, the way Barack Obama did.
As a series of stump performers, I would say it's a below-average year. And Paul doing very well is certainly not raising that average.
JIM LEHRER: How do you account for Santorum's surge?
MARK SHIELDS: Just a quick thing on Ron Paul.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, Ron Paul. Okay.
MARK SHIELDS: The word in 2008, remember, authenticity?
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: Ron Paul exudes authenticity. He says the same thing wherever he goes.
Others trim, they pander, they play to the crowd. What do you want to hear?
MARK SHIELDS: Ron Paul is just the opposite. And he has -- and he has -- unlike Santorum and even Gingrich at this point, he has money and the ability to raise money in small contributions from a lot of different people.
JIM LEHRER: But Santorum has been saying the same thing, too.
MARK SHIELDS: Santorum has been. Santorum...
JIM LEHRER: In his own way, I mean. Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. He has sounded the themes that have been the credo of modern conservatism: strong, muscular foreign policy.
JIM LEHRER: Appealing to evangelicals.
MARK SHIELDS: Social religious conservatives, and economic fiscal conservatism.
And I think that is -- there's a sense in Iowa that he's worked for it. He's visited the 99 counties. He's done it the retail way. He's listened to the hairdressers and the auto mechanics. And I think that there is a connection point. And especially now with the religious and social conservatives, I think he's caught on.
JIM LEHRER: And that the others have fallen by the wayside, so, hey, here's Santorum?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, he never had the moment in the sun. The others were all Icarus. They got close to the sun and then...
JIM LEHRER: Boom.
MARK SHIELDS: Boom.
JIM LEHRER: Boom, boom.
How do you read Santorum, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, to me, this is less about the candidates and their personalities, and more about just raw demographics and philosophy.
Year after year, there are a lot of social conservatives in this state, and this goes back to the time many elections ago when Pat Robertson did well here, let alone Mike Huckabee. And those social conservatives have always been here, and they're going to vote for a social conservative candidate.
And Santorum is a homeschooler. He homeschools his kids. He's genuinely of the community, even though he is Catholic. And so they're going to go for that guy. There are genuinely a lot of libertarians among the voters here, and they're going to go for Ron Paul. And whether they perform well or not, it's almost beside the point at this point. Those people are going to express their point of view.
And so there are just a lot of those voters in this state.
JIM LEHRER: All right, let's go back to Gingrich for a moment, David. You said you saw him cry today. His polls show that he has really dropped. And why? And does he have a chance of coming out of Iowa in any way that could give him legs?
You say there's a possibility of legs for Gingrich. Why? I asked you three questions at once. Sorry about that.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah.
Well, he's a candidate who has a long reputation. And he's pretty good. I saw him today on the stump, and he gives good answers that get applause going. He's just a polished political performer.
The reason he's falling, primarily, is that there are a lot of ads on TV these days in Iowa, and 47 percent of them are being run against Newt Gingrich. There's just a ton of negative ads, and he's got a lot that he freely admits he's vulnerable for.
And so people are learning about the divorces. They're learning about the Freddie Mac lobbying. And they're just not happy. It's funny to watch him. I happened to run into him in a hotel lobby last night, and he was ebullient and very self-aware, a very different sort of Newt Gingrich, a little more mature than I had seen him, very aware of his problems and his possibilities, and then today the emotional moment.
I wouldn't bet on him rebounding, but he is someone who still can debate extremely well. And that argument that he uses time and time again, who do you want to see debating Barack Obama, that is one that resonates. So I wouldn't totally want to count him out, but I certainly wouldn't bet money on it.
JIM LEHRER: You wouldn't either, would you, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I -- I think I'm probably less bullish on Newt Gingrich's ability to bounce back than David.
In 1996, after he lost, Bob Dole said -- he said: I was told that people didn't like negative ads. I didn't run any. And I lost.
And I think we're seeing that with Newt Gingrich. I mean, David mentioned that 45 percent, 47 percent of all the ads bought in Iowa in 2011 have been against Newt Gingrich. I mean, that leaves 55 percent for anybody else are positive.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARK SHIELDS: Perhaps the most effective was Ron Paul's, which was the serial hypocrisy ad.
So I think it's tough. There's an awful lot that has got back to him. I think probably the Freddie Mac has really hurt him with conservatives in general and the historian explanation. Secondly was really his appearing with Nancy Pelosi in that public service announcement.
JIM LEHRER: He never was able to put that behind him, yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: No, he really hasn't.
JIM LEHRER: On Iowa generally, both of you, beginning with you, David, does -- should Iowa matter as much as it appears to at this point? We're talking about it. The whole world is talking about it right now. Should they be? Is this the way to choose candidates for president of the United States, by starting with Iowa?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I still think so. This is still my favorite place to cover a political race.
It's not the way it used to be. It's not just George H.W. Bush driving around in a station wagon with one aide and maybe a press person. Now there's clumps of people, there's big buses. But it's still -- it's more retail. The people are really run through their paces.
Rick Perry tried, couldn't make it here. Michele Bachmann, we saw what happened to her among voters here. It is -- I think it's still a good testing ground. Is it the most representative state in the country? Maybe not, but I still think it's a practiced, knowledgeable electorate who are very good at putting candidates through the ordeal of running.
And I do think it's a legitimate way to screen out candidates and give a couple a chance to move on.
JIM LEHRER: You agree with that, don't you, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim.
Iowa isn't representative. It has the fourth highest literacy rate of the 50 states. It has the third lowest divorce rate. It has the sixth highest high school graduation rate, higher than the coastal, smug states of Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington.
And the people take it quite seriously. And I always feel better after I have been in Iowa, and I will feel better after Tuesday night again.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
Mark, David, thank you both very much.