JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Gentlemen, welcome. Together again, and it's finally here. We're almost at the convention. Where are the party hats?
JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, so, the Republicans start on Monday.
David, what's the state of the race right now?
DAVID BROOKS: Close. It's been close. But it's especially close in the last week or so.
I guess would you say the polls have evened up a little. And so, if you took the average of all the big recent polls, maybe Romney is down a point. And so that's pretty good for Romney considering all the stuff that has happened especially.
And so, we go into the conventions and look for bounces. And the average bounce is about four or five points. And so the record bounce was Bill Clinton's first bounce, but that happened when Ross Perot pulled out. John Kerry got a very small bounce, but in general you get five.
MARK SHIELDS: A bounce being a lift in the polls.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes, a bounce being a lift.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: And so I'm very curious to know if he gets that five.
And there are two counter trends here. The first is the electorate has been so rigid the entire race, maybe there is just no bounce, because everybody is all sort of locked in.
On the other hand, I genuinely think that Romney is unknown, really, really unknown, considering the fact that he has been running for president since the 19th century or something like that.
And so if he makes himself known -- and I'm not sure he can do that, but if he does, he has the potential to get a bounce, as people say, oh, he's not so bad.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you think they will like what they learn.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I look at the favorability.
It's a big issue. But here is my personal opinion. I look at the favorability. Obama has a 23 percentage point advantage on, do you like the guy?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: Now, I have interviewed both of these people a lot. Maybe Obama is more likable. He's not that much more likable. Romney is a pretty decent guy.
So, I think there is some upside there. That's my personal opinion.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, you know, whatever Romney's task is, do you agree with David that the race is tight? Romney has picked up a little bit.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I will say this as a formulation of this race, that if President Obama is reelected on November 6, it will be primarily because he ran against Mitt Romney.
If he were running unopposed, 2012 would be a very tough fight for him. I mean, I think David's right. The race is close. I think that tells you how vulnerable the president is, when only 43 percent of voters think he deserves reelection. By a 2-1 margin, people think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
But Romney has essentially wasted the four months he had from the time he became the de facto nominee. He has not filled in -- there are two things that people want to know. What kind of a guy is he? Who is he? He has not revealed himself.
And he has a special problem because he only had one term in public office, during which he was pro-choice on abortion, he was pro-gun control, he was pro-environment, a greenie, and, in addition, he offered the mandatory health insurance that everybody had to buy with a public subsidy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: When he was governor of Massachusetts.
MARK SHIELDS: When he was governor of Massachusetts.
But that -- that is his only public record, and he's totally moved away from that.
Now, people don't know who he is. And they don't have a -- they want to have a sense of what kind of a guy he is, what kind of a person he is, and what he's going to do. He hasn't filled that in at all and he's let the Obama campaign fill in a lot of it and he's let the Obama campaign fill it in.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.
DAVID BROOKS: I was doing a Google search looking for some information, and I came across a column I wrote in 2007. Of course, I reread what I wrote.
And it was this. It was like, how come he doesn't tell us who he is? And so that was 2007. And it's been five years since then.
JUDY WOODRUFF: About Romney.
DAVID BROOKS: And he still hasn't done that. So maybe there is nobody in the house. But I don't know. We will see.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, why is he doing so well then if he hasn't told us who he is?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's, quite honestly, because the president is in a tough situation.
The president has a ceiling -- you have to believe those polls -- about 48. And the president hasn't broken through to 50, 51. And, you know, Judy, I mean, the country is headed in the wrong direction. People don't -- are not optimistic about the future. They don't have confidence.
I mean, two out of three voters do not have confidence that the president's policies and plans will move us economically.
Three out of four people don't have confidence -- this is a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll -- that Romney's plans will. So, I mean, you know, the challenger has a special responsibility to say, this is where we're going. This is how we're going to get there. And he has not done that.
And, plus, he is somebody who is quite awkward, I think, on the public platform. There is not an ease of manner. I think the president's ease of manner, his comfort with himself, his comfort in his own skin is what works for him in likability, and plus an absolutely winning smile.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, you have been away a couple of weeks. I haven't had a chance to ask you about the -- Romney's choice of Paul Ryan. Has that changed the dynamic?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
First of all, I thought it was substantively heroic, because I think Ryan really does give you some real substance.
My first reaction was political disaster, for two reasons. One, House Republicans are the most unpopular group in America. And he's a House Republican. So I thought Romney had to distance himself.
Two, Medicare is a really popular program. I think it's a completely unsustainable program that has to be fundamentally changed, but it is really popular. And so you are tying yourself to two losing issues.
Now, having said that, at least in the couple weeks since Ryan has been picked, that nightmare scenario has not hurt Romney, in part, because one thing I didn't appreciate, if people see Romney as this flip-flopper who will just be for whatever is popular, picking Ryan, going into that Medicare morass, was actually a sign of some steel there.
And so it sort of hasn't been so bad. And I think Ryan is a pretty effective politician.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, Mark, the Democrats thought -- or many of them were saying that they thought the Medicare issue would work to their advantage.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, it does work to their -- I mean, I think the Democrats have made a terrible mistake this week, quite honestly, on the Todd Akin thing. They have just chased the Todd Akin balloon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Missouri representative who made the comment about abortion.
MARK SHIELDS: It was stupid, ludicrous, indefensible, you know, wrong.
But you can't expand him into this campaign. I just think that Medicare gave you a chance, Judy, to break into the one age cohort that John McCain carried in 2008, voters over the age of 65.
A preeminent -- prominent Republican said to me this week the dirty little secret of politics everybody knows who is in office, and that is everybody likes Medicare.
Even the Tea Party people say, keep your hands off my Medicare. I mean, they like Medicare. And once you start -- David's right about financing problems and so forth. But by every measurement, it works for the Democrats and it cuts into that constituency. And...
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying they got off-message.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, they got off-message. And they started going Todd Akin and Claire McCaskill and trying to expand that into a national issue.
And, I mean, it doesn't have the legs.
I mean, it's not an unimportant issue, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't have the universal appeal that Medicare -- you would have Paul Ryan having to spend the first third of his speech next week in Tampa defending and explaining his Medicare position.
Any time you explain Medicare, you are losing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you don't think that's going to happen?
DAVID BROOKS: Oh, I think it will happen. I agree with Mark. They got off-message this week, but they have got a bunch of weeks left and it will come back.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you agree that spending time talking about the Todd Akin -- was the wrong thing to do?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Let's remember, campaigns don't matter that much. They move a few percentage points.
But the things that matter in campaigns are not the indignation of the day. So whatever he says, it's the fundamental -- it's pointing to a real issue that people can relate to. I think school loans probably matter, taxes matter, jobs and Medicare matter.
MARK SHIELDS: The thing about Medicare, just the one thing, is it gave the Democrats a chance to put the Republicans in the House in play.
In other words -- in other words, you could make this an issue that goes from the president all the way through to every House race. Who do you trust that's going protect, preserve and strengthen Medicare, us or the guys who want to turn it into a voucher?
And I just think that was a winner, and I think they moved away from that. I think they had a great opportunity to define Paul Ryan, and they won't have that chance again in the same way that they would have had.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So speaking of comments that come up, the press today jumped all over, David, the -- Gov. Romney's comment about the president's birthplace. You know, "Nobody will ever doubt where Ann and I were born, here in Michigan."
The press jumped on that.
I hear the two of you saying that kind of thing, with all the -- whatever it stirs up, is just -- doesn't make any difference in the end.
DAVID BROOKS: It certainly doesn't.
I think if Jay Leno had made the joke, none of us would think about it. Nonetheless, I think Romney shouldn't have said it. It is demeaning. The guy is running for office. Just don't go there. But people vote on the fundamentals. It's the presidency. They are going to vote on real stuff.
The campaigns have their BlackBerrys and their iPhones. And they will react to the indignation of the day, but I really do think there is indignation fatigue and that people just -- they -- oh, yes, I'm supposed to be angry about that, but I'm having trouble.
MARK SHIELDS: The second -- the shortest book in America is the rib-tickling one-liners of Mitt Romney.
He is not a funny man. He is not a naturally funny man. He shouldn't try to be funny. And this was I think a failed attempt at humor on his part.
Plus, he shouldn't be talking about releasing documents, I mean, whether it's a birth certificate because then you're into, Mitt, do want to talk about your tax returns?
So it was just -- this is the awkwardness. I mean, people don't want to be wincing for the next four years while the president is trying to be funny or easy or glib or quick. And so, I think that's why this convention, this Tampa week is so important for him.
You have got to come out of there with, yes, I know where he wants to go and it makes sense to me, and, yes, he is a pretty -- a good guy. He's not my best buddy, but at least I'm comfortable with him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Filling in the picture of who he is, however they choose to do that.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, the emotion, first the comfort level. It's like a musical ability, like Gov. Christie has it. It's reading a crowd and being in sympathy with the emotional tides of people around you. That is part of what people want.
But they just want to know -- he has many acts of kindnesses in his life. Somehow, that's not known. He has got to get that out. And then just, I'm a normal person. I'm not just rich and cold. I'm not just a human Excel spreadsheet. And he's somehow got to get through that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is that easy for them to do or hard for them to do?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, he's never done it. This is a man who has been running for president easily for eight years, and failed to do it so far.
He's not comfortable talking about his business career. So the Democrats and the Obama campaign have filled in the details on that, that it's outsourcing, and it's whatever else.
He's not comfortable talking about his faith. He has started to do that in sort of a halting way. But it's obviously central to his life.
He's not comfortable talking about his governorship. So, I don't know what he is comfortable talking about, I guess his kids and his wife.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he loves -- faith is the key. He is not just a Mormon. He's an important figure in the Mormon Church. He has devoted 20 hours a week year after year to it. He has really got to talk about that.
And, listen, I admire reticence. I'm not a big believer in the expose-all culture. But it is 2012. You have got to run in the country -- the times you are given. And he has got to do a little more self-exposure, as much as he hates it, and as much in some way I admire him for hating that sort of spill-your-guts sort of deal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are looking forward to spending a lot of time with the two of you starting Monday night in Tampa and then on to Charlotte. Gwen and I are going to be -- we're going to be joined at the hip for two whole weeks.
Thank you, gentlemen.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see you then.