MS. IFILL: Government (fight ?), baby steps at the White House and on Capitol Hill, plus taking a closer look at Herman Cain and Rick Perry, tonight on “Washington Week.”

Putting together puzzles, why is Herman Cain leading in the polls?

HERMAN CAIN: Politicians only propose stuff that they think they can pass. Businessmen propose stuff that fixes the problem.

MS. IFILL: How is Rick Perry changing his strategy?

TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: This postcard, this is the size of what we’re talking about right here. Taxpayers will be able to fill this out and file their taxes on that. (Applause.)

MS. IFILL: Can President Obama regain the upper hand on the economy?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should be doing everything we can to put a college education within reach for every American.

MS. IFILL: And is the congressional Supercommittee moving forward or treading water?

REPRESENTATIVE JEB HENSARLING (R-TX): Today we may be debating the pennies, nickels, and dimes in a debt crisis that is demanding half dollars and dollar bills.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-WA): If this committee is going to work, and I believe that it must, we all need to be willing to make some tough decisions and real compromises.

MS. IFILL: The fall temperatures are dropping, but the debates are heating up.

Covering the week, John Dickerson of “Slate Magazine,” and CBS News, John Harwood of CNBC and “The New York Times,” Jackie Calmes of “The New York Times,” and Janet Hook of “The Wall Street Journal.”

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. One of the most intriguing twists in the Republican presidential primary race in recent weeks has been the rise of Herman Cain and the deflation of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Polls don’t lie and they are snapshots capturing moments, but the picture they show right now puts Cain, the unconventional former Pizza CEO, Federal Reserve board member, and radio talk show host in the top tier. He has fumbled on foreign policy, stumbled on domestic policy, and still managed to rise.

MR. CAIN: I am not going to change my approach because I’m afraid that I might make a misstatement because trying to be perfect and have the perfect response every time is not my objective. My objective is to be honest with the American people.

MS. IFILL: Honest with the American people, John. So is that honesty getting him up in the polls real or ephemeral?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, you know, about a month ago Sarah Palin said he was the flavor of the week. And now he’s at least – he’s sort of a regular special on the menu. He is now at the top of some polls. In the CBS poll, he’s beating Mitt Romney. In state polls in Iowa and South Carolina he’s now tied with Romney. So what we know is he’s popular, but we know now after a month that he’s able to endure, that he’s able to have a few gas, and he’s able to sustain his support within the Republican Party. And also what’s happening with him that didn’t happened with Bachmann and Perry, others who shut up, is that the more people get to know him, the more they like him. With Bachmann and Perry, the more people got to know them, the more problems they found and their numbers plummeted. And that’s a very special part of his rise

MS. IFILL: Is it just geniality? Is it that people like his message? Is it complete – the simplicity of it?

MR. DICKERSON: Yes, yes, and yes. Let’s start with the fact that he’s a winning – he has a winning personality. People just like him. He hasn’t been to Iowa in a while, in certain parts of Iowa, and they’re still sort of drafting off the fumes of when he was there months ago. They like him. The other thing is that in the Republican Party the majority of voters don’t like Mitt Romney. They’ve been looking for an alternative. And so they went through Perry. They went through Bachmann. They even flirted with Trump for a period. And so they are looking for somebody. And also he’s not a politician and this is the key to it because when people talk about why they like him, they say, you know, he is a plain spoken person, so he has a few gaffes, gaffes that would kill other candidates, but with him they let him off the hook.

And they also, when people pick at his 9-9-9 tax plan, those who like Cain say, you know, this is – the people who are picking at the plan are just lawyers and bureaucrats who are – who benefit from the current system. So he has lot of cushion from voters in terms of his ability to have a few gaffes and he still does fine.

MS. CALMES: Well, are the Republican voters, especially the conservatives in Iowa, going to – is he going to lose support from them as they get to know that his abortion position isn’t quite as rigid as they would like?

MR. DICKERSON: This is one of these perfect examples of a gaffe that should kill other candidates, in fact has. He was asked about abortion in an interview and he says no abortions allowed under any exception, but then as a former aide to him once said, if you just let him talk, he’ll argue himself out of his own position, and he started to do that. He started, in the end to say, that – in the case of rape or incest, it was really up to the person involved. Well, Rick Santorum, who’s always the first to jump on these kinds of things, said that’s essentially the pro-choice position. Cain came back and said no, that’s not it. I’m against abortion in all the situations.

You would think this would hurt him in the Iowa state, where there’re a lot of evangelical voters. It hasn’t so far. And again, people see these gaffes – when you talk to voters who like Cain, they say, you know, he’s not a polished politician. He doesn’t have teleprompters. And they love that because they so distrust Washington politicians and politicians from anywhere else.

MR. HARWOOD: I was talking to a Romney adviser the other day who said what they like about him is that he’s somebody who has been a successful businessman, but is still totally accessible to the average person –

MS. IFILL: Who like him, Romney people or people in general? Who said what they like about him?

MR. HARWOOD: What people like about him –

MS. IFILL: Oh, okay.

MR. HARWOOD: – what Republican voters like about him.

MS. IFILL: Didn’t think that Romney people like him too much right now.

MR. HARWOOD: No, but I don’t think they mind him either because the more that Herman Cain stays at the top of the polls, the more difficult it is for somebody else to consolidate support. But what I wonder about Cain is whether he’s playing a different game than the other people. That is, you know, he said in the clip that Gwen just played that my goal in this is to be honest. He’s likeable. He didn’t say my goal is to be president, to be elected. I wonder whether that’s really what’s going on and whether people like him. And then we’ll get serious when we get to the –

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s the – you know, some people think this is the longest audition possible for a spot at Fox News. That he is – and if you look at his organization, I mean he’s in Alabama this weekend, not one of your early primary states. Here’s what his competitors think. First of all, it’s very hard to attack him because he’s so likeable. But where Cain ultimately falls would be a situation where voters start to look at him. In the Oval Office, there was a – Peter Hart did a focus group and the people in the focus group loved him, but as Dan Balz reported, when you asked him if you think about him in the Oval Office, then they stopped loving him. And that’s where the break is.

MS. IFILL: Well, there was another puzzle this week, Rick Perry, he was supposed to be barnstorming by now, but the same polls that show Herman Cain surging, those same polls put the Texas governor in the single digits. At the beginning of the week, in an interview with John Harwood here, he was reviving debunked speculation about President Obama’s citizenship.

MR. HARWOOD: But it sounds like you really do have some doubt about it.

GOV. PERRY: Well, I – look, I haven’t seen his – I haven’t seen his – I haven’t seen his grades. My grades ended up on the front page in newspapers. So let’s – you know, if we’re going to show stuff, let’s show stuff. But look, that’s all a distraction. I mean I get it. I’m really not worried about the president’s birth certificate. It’s fun to poke at him a little bit and say, hey, how about – let’s see your grades and your birth certificate.

MS. IFILL: By the end of the week, he was not saying it was so much fun anymore after he got some blowback from that. But he was also hinting he might cut back on debates. So what’s really going on with Rick Perry, John?

MR. HARWOOD: I think what’s going on with Rick Perry is that he as a candidate and the new team that he’s put together is trying to figure out how to get him back on his feet again.

He started out like a rocket. He went to 38 percent nationally in the Republican race. He immediately became the vessel for all of the misgivings that people had about Mitt Romney and he seemed to have the promise to consolidate the tea party support on the right, but also the establishment support of somebody who’d been for a long time the governor of the second largest state in the country. But after the debate performances that he’s had, after people got a closer look at him, a lot of that fell away very fast, so now he’s –

MS. IFILL: You got a close look. You had probably the longest sit down interview with him that I’ve seen, in which you talked about mostly his economic plan, even though he made that comment about birtherism. Did he seem like he was back on his feet to you?

MR. HARWOOD: No, I can’t say that because of the way he stepped on his story. Remember, he was trying to talk about a tax and an economic plan, and by talking about the birther issue, which I asked him because it’d been in “Parade Magazine,” expecting him to bat it away, he didn’t do that. That was not an effective communications performance by him.

Now, he has a tax plan that has the potential for rallying some of the economic conservatives to join with social conservatives and get behind him. It’s going to face a lot of scrutiny and you can expect the Romney people to say it’s unaffordable. It’s not going to work. It fails on fairness grounds. It would blow out the deficit. At least it gives him something fresh to talk about instead of the fact that he appeared to be lackluster and lacking energy and articulation at some of the debates.

MS. HOOK: Well, if both Cain and Perry are – they’re candidacies have mostly been fueled by the kind of anybody-but-Romney sentiment, I’m just wondering do you think that Perry can restore his place as the alternative to Romney? I mean is he basically now competing with Herman Cain more than with Romney?

MR. HARWOOD: I don’t think so. I think he still is in the game with Mitt Romney. He’s got $15 million in the bank. There’re only two candidates right now who’ve demonstrated that they have a lot of money to put on television, which ultimately I think is where the thing is going to get serious. There’s no slam-dunk certainty of that and one of the questions is can somebody like Herman Cain, who doesn’t have that war chest, is there something viral about his appeal that will float his candidacy not in a traditional way? This could be an untraditional cycle, but by all the metrics that we’ve all used in the past, Rick Perry is going to dump a huge amount of television on Iowa, on South Carolina, on Florida. We’ve got to see whether he can hurt Mitt Romney and lift himself up a little bit. And the jury is still out on that.

MR. DICKERSON: His tax plan helps with those economic conservatives. In the CBS poll, it showed that a month ago, his support among tea party -- people who’re affiliated with the tea party, was at 30 percent. It’s now at 7. How does he work that part of the party? How does he get back in their good graces?

MR. HARWOOD: That’s where the birther stuff came in. You know, a lot of the – I think Rick Perry looked at what’s happened this year, the meteors that have risen and then fallen. Donald Trump had a moment there where he rose in the polls and he was going around everywhere talking about this birther controversy, which most people think is ridiculous and there’s no basis to it. But he rose in the polls when that happened. And Rick Perry, when we did our interview, had come from a meeting with Donald Trump, and I think he was playing to that a little bit. By the end of the week, he was saying I was joking. I wasn’t serious. But by engaging in that conversation, that was a signal to some of those voters that hey, I relate to some of the things that you relate to.

MS. IFILL: You talk about meteors rising and falling. Then there’s Mitt Romney, who is neither rising nor falling. He’s staying right around 25 percent in all these polls. Is he just sitting back and letting this all play out or does he have a strategy for taking these people out?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think his strategy is to keep doing what he’s doing, focus on Obama, let the other vote split itself, and they’re hoping that once people worry about Herman Cain actually sitting in the Oval Office, his support will drop. Perry will get some. Gingrich will get some. It’ll all split. His problem, though, is that he – he was attacked this week on the flat tax and they said he was a flip-flopper, and that was an unfair charge. His position on the flat tax has been consistent. But almost as if to fill the vacuum with a flip-flop, he came up with one in Ohio, saying he wasn’t going to talk about the local issue, too, which he previously had a position on, and then the next day he did in fact offer a position. It was a classic –

MS. IFILL: Bargaining initiative, yes.

MR. HARWOOD: That is a big vulnerability and he’s going to have to survive that when Rick Perry and others attack him. However, I think you’ve got to look at the state of this race and say his strategy’s working pretty well so far. He’s done better than anyone else on fundraising. He has been level on the polls. He’s got a big lead in New Hampshire. And his running his general election campaign against President Obama right now. Very few Republican frontrunners have had the luxury of doing that. The more the rest of the Republican field is fractured and filled with people who seem to be hobbled in one way or the other, that strategy is looking very good.

MS. CALMES: So the question is, as the others fall away, as they inevitably will, does he get their support? I mean, he hasn’t been able to crack 25 percent barely.

MR. DICKERSON: No, so far he hasn’t. I mean – and you know, George Will –

MS. IFILL: There is the electability inevitability thing that Republicans do often.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, right, but they haven’t – you know, he beats Barack Obama in polls nationally and statewide head to head. And – or he does better than any other Republican candidate, and that has not brought voters to him. And George Will’s got a column this weekend in which he garrotes him with a bow tie. And that’s a problem, going right at this idea. He’s wishy-washy and so forth.

MS. IFILL: Well, we have to talk about the president because while the Republicans were taking care of each other, the president was going small this week, effectively conceding that his big jobs bill can’t pass. He instead embraced a micro-approach designed to keep at least the appearance of movement on issues Americans worry about, including housing and college affordability.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I need you guys involved. I need you active. Too many people out there are hurting. Too many people are out there hurting for us to sit around and doing nothing.

MS. IFILL: So Jackie, who’s the president targeting that message to?

MS. CALMES: Well, the message is generally to everyone because it’s as if he’s saying, I’m not powerless just because the Republicans in Congress are obstructing every major piece of legislation I put forward. And then, as each of these proposals dribbles out, as they have been, they have a separate message to the constituency he’s aiming at. Take these student loan proposals to ease the term of repayment for people with federal student loans. That was aimed, just as his audience that he made it to in Denver, at the University of Colorado, Denver, aimed at the youth – the younger voters who were critical to his election, and like other demographic groups, he’s got weaker support there. They’re not as energized. And so that’s aimed at that group.

Two days earlier in Las Vegas, he had talked about his – the changed rules to ease refinancing for people who are facing or may not be facing foreclosure yet, but their house – they want to refinance to save money, but their home values are lower than their mortgage. So that’s for – that was in a Hispanic neighborhood, aimed at Hispanic voters.

MS. IFILL: But this micro-targeting is – is it strategic – as strategic as it is necessary?

MS. CALMES: Yes. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: Yes, yes, and yes. My favorite answer.

MS. CALMES: I mean, the worst thing would be for him – right now the attention is legislatively his jobs plan is at the mercy of Congress, as you said in your intro. It’s clearly not going to go. It’s blocked by Republican voters and enough – a couple of Democrats, just to keep it from being even a question of whether it might pass by a majority. So he – he has to do this just so he doesn’t look like he’s on the sidelines powerless.

MS. HOOK: Well, he’s not the first president that has resorted to this one. When Bill Clinton had a Republican Congress, he also tried doing some smaller initiatives, things that could be done by executive power, not relying on Congress. You know the famous school uniforms initiative is a kind of a response to social problems.

In this case, though, isn’t there a risk for Obama in that this is a really big, bad economy? And to be going around talking about these little micro things, there seems like there’s sort of mismatch between the problem that he’s tackling and the solutions that he’s proposing.

MS. CALMES: There is that risk that it looks small, but he does have the fallback of arguing he’s got this big package that’s in Congress. It’s – it polls well. He talks about it. When he’s been out on the stump this week, he talks about, you know, these little proposals do not negate the need for this big plan. So he’s still – he’s got both. But it does – you know, the criticism is that these kind of executive actions, executive orders, memoranda, they have been done before. He’s been doing them before. And a lot of this is packaging.

MR. HARWOOD: So when Speaker Boehner says oh, this is – he’s exceeding his authority. It might not be constitutional. That is, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

MS. CALMES: I don’t think so. I mean, we have yet to see some of these. But I think, you know, first of all, the White House is smart enough and has enough lawyers in house that they should know before they put something out, whether it exceeds his constitutional authority. But you know, the criticism from Republicans and others is sort of both, A, he’s exceeding his authority; B, these are so minor they’re laughable.

So you know, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But you know, as – in fairness, just as a lot of us sat around 10-15 years ago and ridiculed President Clinton for things like the school uniforms –

MS. IFILL: Questioned. I think ridiculed would be kind of harsh.

MS. CALMES: Okay. Some people ridiculed. We questioned. And – but they proved quite popular with the public.

MS. IFILL: Sure.

MS. CALMES: The difference is this is a different economy.

MR. HARWOOD: But Jackie, on the big picture, he did get some decent news on economic growth this week that the economy grew at a more rapid rate than people expected. So on the issue of the inadequacy of the addition, I wonder whether he gets any lift from the fact that we’re growing at 2.5 percent.

MS. CALMES: Right. Well, it couldn’t hurt. That’s for sure. And it was – did exceed expectations. But the expectations are also that it cannot be sustained. And you know, we’ll continue to have slow growth. Some of that growth may be from the tax cuts that he and Republicans agreed to last December, which need to be extended if they’re going to live on past December.

So if you take away – the macroeconomic forecasters say if those tax cuts, payroll tax relief, unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, if those expire at the end of December, that could take a full percentage point away from the economy next year.

MR. DICKERSON: Jackie, is there any worry about – they used to worry about his leadership credentials, that when he would say, you know, I’m trying and these Republicans in Congress are doing nothing and blaming the Republicans, do they worry at all that people look at that and say, wait a minute, you’re the president. You’re totally powerless? Is some of this about kind of showing he’s a leader?

MS. CALMES: Exactly. And they do worry about that and they should worry about that because despite the fact, as we saw that in the most recent poll the congressional approval rating was single digits, 9 percent, you know, that’s small consolation to the president. I mean, the people are going to vote to reelect him largely based on his own record, not – it’s not a question of Barack Obama or the Republicans in Congress.

MS. IFILL: Thanks, Jackie. While the president was traveling the country, back in Washington we may have seen signs of movement on Capitol Hill -- may have -- where members of the Supercommittee assigned to come up with a deficit reduction agreement came out from behind closed doors. Right now, they don’t agree about taxes or spending, but the deadline is still a whole three and a half weeks away, isn’t that so Janet?

MS. HOOK: That is.

MS. IFILL: That’s a lot of time.

MS. HOOK: Sad to say it. On Capitol Hill, three and a half weeks is a long time because this is an institution that only works when its nose is right up against the deadline.

They do have a really big job, though, and a big bill up to write, so they better start writing it soon. They’re supposed to come up with a bill – a proposal to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion by November 23rd. That’s less than a month away.

Now, this week, they didn’t exactly come out from behind closed door. This committee is a special bipartisan House-Senate committee that was set up, has been operating under really tight secrecy, you know, really uncharacteristic lack of information and leaks. They’ve held a few hearings, but all of their serious negotiations are behind closed doors. So they didn’t come out from behind closed doors this week, but they kind of cracked the door open a little bit so we could kind of hear – there’re a couple of weeks about what happened. And what happened was the Democrats offered their first comprehensive offer to the Republicans of where they’re coming from on this. And the Republicans outright, you know, immediately rejected it and then offered it theirs. And then the Democrats rejected that.

And truth to tell, there wasn’t anything too surprising about the different proposals that Democrats had a big plan for reducing the deficit by $3 trillion and they wanted to include a lot of tax increases. The Republicans had a somewhat smaller deficit reduction package, $2 trillion, rather than $3, and they didn’t want any tax increases. So I don’t know where we go from here.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, what I wonder, Janet, is whether the exchange this week showed that in all this work that’s being done hush-hush behind closed doors, there’s actually nothing going on at all? Or whether or not it is – we’ve seen the choreography of something that is too nuanced for us to understand at this moment because it looks like exactly what happens?

MS. IFILL: We’re hoping it’s the latter, actually.

MS. HOOK: Yes, no, it’s been very hard to figure. It’s been kind of like waiting for a jury to break and you know, kind of deliver the verdict, and you’re kind of wondering in the meantime were they like playing tic-tac-toe in there or what. But I think – they haven’t been doing nothing. I think they haven’t found the magic – the key to unlock the puzzle. I do think there’s like a couple of little pieces of common ground in these two proposals that maybe could take them somewhere. One is that both the Republicans and the Democrats chose to put out a proposal that went beyond the $1.2 trillion minimum that the law sets out –

MR. HARWOOD: So they’re thinking big.

MS. HOOK: So they’re trying to think big, but I think what this shows is that the best they can do when they go think big is a little bit irreconcilable. But I think they got to the point where – we’re wondering, well, maybe they won’t even get to $1.2. Well, you can still wonder about that. The other thing that is in both of them is that both actually take pretty big cuts out of Medicare, including the Democratic proposal takes big savings out of Medicare and Medicaid. And that caused a lot of trouble for the Democrats. There’s a lot of liberals and Democrats who really are mad at the Democrats on the Supercommittee that put these cuts on the table, like why are we making this big concession on spending if they’re not going to give ground on taxes?

MS. CALMES: Isn’t the Democrat – isn’t the Democratic position that they will agree to these Medicare – future Medicare reductions only if the Republicans agreed to some higher revenues on the wealthy?

MS. HOOK: Yes, that’s their position. And it remains to be seen whether they’ll get any ground on that.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well thank you. That was a nice quick question and answer. I appreciate it very much because we’re out of time. We have to move on, but the conversation will continue online. You can tell we have a lot more to talk about. It’s on our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” It’ll post by 11:00 p.m. Eastern. While you’re online and not watching the World Series, you can read my blog about the lost art of Washington compromise. Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.