JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson. Both are syndicated columnists whose columns appear in The Washington Post.
Mark Shields and David Brooks are off tonight.
And we welcome both of you.
RUTH MARCUS: Hi.
MICHAEL GERSON: Good to be here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So we just heard that really fascinating interview with the author of the book about Michelle Obama.
Michael, how is Michelle Obama seen by the American people?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think she's clearly the president's single best surrogate.
She's a mix of grace and toughness of a kind that Americans really like and respect. I would say the same, by the way, of Ann Romney, who is a tremendous advantage. It says something that I think both of these women are probably better natural politicians than their husbands.
And -- but the warning here, of course, is that, just like your vice presidents, the first lady is not determinative in the outcome of the election. Otherwise, George H.W. Bush would have been reelected as president, because Barbara Bush was a beloved figure in America.
But she is a tremendous advantage to the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see, Ruth, the role of Michelle Obama and Ann Romney?
RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think, as Michael said, they're not going to be tipping the balance, but they are the first surrogate.
They are, first of all, validators of their spouses, in the cases that we have had mostly, their husbands' personas. They help humanize them. And these are men who both in some ways need a little bit of humanizing and warming up.
RUTH MARCUS: People want to know that their presidents are family men or women.
They're also -- look, this is a -- campaigns these days are all-hands-on-deck extravaganzas. So what we need from the spouse is also the willingness that Michelle Obama has demonstrated in this campaign to go out, not just to campaign, but also to fundraise.
And one of the interesting things about Mrs. Obama is her popularity has actually grown since she was first introduced to the public. She's done a very good job in the White House...
JUDY WOODRUFF: With the obesity project.
RUTH MARCUS: With the obesity. Nobody -- she's picked noncontroversial subjects, so nobody except for my children can argue with being told to eat their vegetables.
RUTH MARCUS: And she does particularly well in an area that is very important to the president, which is independents. She polls significantly better than he does in favorability among independents. That's her attraction.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is interesting.
And speaking of polling, Michael, several new polls out this week that show the president with a, what, seven- to nine-point lead. There still are a couple of polls out there that have him either tied or even have Romney ahead by a point or two.
And I realize it's the middle of August. But what is the significance of this kind of lead for the president at this point?
MICHAEL GERSON: Whatever the level is -- and that's unclear -- the trend is not good for Romney. He's lost support among independents, clearly.
He's lost support among women, particularly women -- working women without children, where he does really badly. His unfavorables are much higher in these polls than they have been, or significantly higher than they have been in the past. And that, I think, indicates that this onslaught, this blitz of negative advertising may be working in part on Romney.
Now, there are some -- some good news here, in that these are probably outliers. Gallup has it -- their daily tracking has it much closer. There are still big events coming up, the vice president, the convention, the debates...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Very big events.
MICHAEL GERSON: ... very large debates.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.
MICHAEL GERSON: And these polls get more accurate the closer you get to the election.
So, right now, they should be a warning for Romney. I don't think they're a source of panic, but he needs to take them quite seriously.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the polls?
RUTH MARCUS: Very similarly.
I don't get too worked up about a few things, national polls, OK? Let's look at the swing state polls. Look at the polling in Ohio, in Colorado, in Florida, in Virginia.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Where it's still close in some of these states.
RUTH MARCUS: Where -- those are places, actually, where Gov. Romney has some reason to be concerned.
But I also don't get too worked up about polling in August before all sorts of things have happened that are going to shape the minds of the actually very small number of undecided voters who haven't really tuned in yet here.
That said, these polls -- that Gov. Romney is not doing well overall in a number of polls is not good news for his campaign, given where he should be, simply based on the economic numbers that the president is facing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I made a promise to myself we were not going to spend much time on the vice presidential pick, because we don't know who it's going to be.
But does the -- just quickly, Michael, does the polling in any way put pressure on Romney to go in a certain direction?
MICHAEL GERSON: It does, I think, clearly.
It encourages him to take a bolder choice. He needs to run as though he's behind. And he is behind, whatever the level is. That leads to candidates like Chris Christie, the kind of guy you want at your side in a fight, and Paul Ryan, who is the intellectual leader of his party.
I think that those are narrowing to be the main choices here, rather than a status quo choice. And it may come down to the meetings where Romney meets these two men and decides who he's more comfortable with.
RUTH MARCUS: I actually see it completely differently, and we will find out soon enough.
But that he's behind in the polls now maybe a little bit doesn't suggest sort of throwing caution to the wind and picking somebody like a Paul Ryan, who I think would be very interesting, would bring a lot of energy and intelligence and substance to the debate, but would be, from the Democrats' point of view, like the second coming of Sarah Palin, just a constant series...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, in a different way than Sarah Palin, but just a huge number of opportunities for nonstop 30-second attack ads.
I think that everything we understand about Gov. Romney suggests a much more, if I'm going to use an old Bush word, a much more prudent choice.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, from everything we're hearing, we may learn something in the next few days, or we may not learning something.
But, Michael, you mentioned the onslaught of negative ads, and, in fact, a lot of conversation this week about a pro-Obama super PAC ad that has been running that features a man who worked at a steel plant in Kansas before it was bought and then shut down by a firm that -- Mitt Romney's firm, Bain Capital.
Let's look at this ad. And then I want to ask you about it. We're also going to see the response from the Romney camp.
JOE SOPTIC, steel plant worker: When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. And my family lost their health care.
And a short time after that, my wife became ill. I don't know how long she was sick. And I think maybe she didn't say anything because she knew that we couldn't afford the insurance.
And then one day, she became ill, and then I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia, and that's when they found the cancer. And by then, it was stage four. There was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.
NARRATOR: What does it say about a president's character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain?
What does it say about a president's character when he had his campaign raise money for the ad, then stood by as his top aides were caught lying about it?
Doesn't America deserve better than a president who will say or do anything to stay in power?
MITT ROMNEY (R): I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael, we should say that the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, spot, that was just an excerpt of it.
Was that over the top?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the standards of accuracy in a lot of ads in this election have been pretty low.
I think this ad is in its own dismal category. I think it's factually inaccurate, if you look at the details involved about Romney's involvement in this matter. I think that the arguments are absurd. I think that the message is slanderous and genuinely unfair.
We're no longer arguing whether -- what standards we should apply to political advertising. We're starting to argue whether there are any standards whatsoever for political advertising. And this is really a shameless ad that no one seems to be ashamed of.
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, except that this...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, it's over the top?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, it's over the top, shameless that nobody seems to be ashamed of.
But when the tagline of Governor Romney's ad, "You deserve a president who would say or do anything," I think I have to say, that seems these days to be applying to both campaigns.
I think this ad is scurrilous in suggesting, insinuating that Gov. Romney was somehow responsible, through some series of events, for this woman's death. And it's just -- it goes too far. But I was equally, I think, upset about the Romney campaign ad this week about welfare reform, suggesting -- and I think in some ways that really had some racially troubling overtones...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Criticizing the president for rolling back the welfare...
RUTH MARCUS: ... criticizing the president for abandoning welfare reform and suggesting that he was simply willing to hand out checks, while white people shown in the ad worked hard.
And this similarly had absolutely no basis in the reality of what his change is.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about the question you just raised, Michael? Are there any standards anymore?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, this is the problem, is that every one of these incidents, where you get in the gutter and then you go lower than the gutter, is -- becomes an excuse for the next round of escalation.
So, partisans on both sides say, well, he did that. And you end up with a terrible dynamic taking hold.
I think it's a reflection of some deeper problems in our political culture and it may be a reflection of our Internet culture, where these kinds of attacks are common, where there are no standards, where there are no limits.
And people just seem to be adopting, you know, a situation that's just utilitarian, where facts don't seem to matter. Fact-checkers don't matter. Nothing matters.
RUTH MARCUS: No, there's that sort of pride in your Pinocchios. They don't seem to be dissuading anybody.
And I think one thing that may explain this is that not just we're in an Internet culture, but we're in almost a substance-free zone, where because we're not arguing about ideas and we're not arguing about policies and we're not having the debate about serious issues, it creates this space for these -- first the ads, and then the argument over what -- the content of the ads, and did you know about the ads, and will you repudiate the ads, instead of talking about the serious things we need to be talking about.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And should -- should the Obama campaign or the White House repudiate it, call on this super PAC organization to pull it back?
RUTH MARCUS: The super PAC organization that they raise money for and desperately need the money to be raised for? Yes, they should. No, they won't.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, quick final question.
You wrote a column this week urging Gov. Romney to be more -- to talk more openly about his faith.
MICHAEL GERSON: Right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you make that point?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it's less risky than he thinks it is, because, if you look at the numbers, most Americans are not concerned about Mormonism in that way.
And even the ones that are concerned, it's not leading to their voting behavior. It's really more partisanship than religion.
But it's very important for him to tell his story. You know, without that element, it's really just Bain and boardrooms.
And this is a humanizing element of Romney's story that, if he doesn't tell, there's a significant gap in his biography. So I hope, in his convention speech -- he doesn't need to be preachy or sectarian. He just needs to talk about his deepest values and motivations and the way it affects the way he would govern. I think Americans expect and want that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you here, Michael Gerson. Maybe the governor is listening.
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, could be.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, Ruth Marcus, we thank you both.
RUTH MARCUS: Thanks a lot.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And a postscript, our NewsHour colleague Gwen Ifill is speaking with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney this weekend. We will post an excerpt on our website and we will have the full interview on the NewsHour Monday.