MS. IFILL: It may be the season of peace and good cheer, but don’t tell that to the 2012 presidential candidates. It seems like everybody’s picking a fight, tonight on “Washington Week.”

A new national frontrunner and Republicans pile on.

JON HUNTSMAN: Newt Gingrich is a product of that same Washington who participated in the excesses of our broken and polarized political system.

ADVERTISMENT: After he left Congress, Freddie Mac gave Gingrich at least $1.6 million.

NEWT GINGRICH: I was way down here and now I’m up here. So I know you can go way back down here.

MS. IFILL: But they’re still attacking the incumbent.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion.

MITT ROMNEY: President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. Appeasement betrays a lack of faith in America, in American strength, and in America’s future.

MS. IFILL: President striking back.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement, or whoever’s left out there – ask them about that.

MS. IFILL: The first voting is only weeks away. Are we seeing a race to the top or to the bottom? Covering the week in politics Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Major Garrett of National Journal, John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times, and Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics.

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. So Newt Gingrich is the man to beat. Statewide polls show him with wide leads in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and even nationally. And in New Hampshire, which shares a border with the state Mitt Romney used to govern, the former House speaker has narrowed the lead. Politicians in both major parties are struggling to absorb the new political reality and so is Gingrich himself.

MR. GINGRICH: We still have a lot of work to do with the next four weeks in Iowa, then a real rush in New Hampshire, then on to South Carolina, then on to Florida and Nevada. I mean, all those within about a month. So I think if we have a little interview right after Nevada, we’ll have a better sense of how real it is.

MS. IFILL: Cue the takedown, including this Mitt Romney video.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Doesn’t have the discipline that you want in a president.

PAT BUCHANAN: He is out and basically he is out in the left wing of the Republican Party.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-NY): With allies like that, who needs the left?

MS. IFILL: The Gingrich people today called this a sign of unbridled panic. Is that what it is, Chuck?

MR. BABINGTON: Well, maybe not panic, but they’ve certainly realized what you just mentioned – that Gingrich has come from pretty far back suddenly to the top of these polls in the important states. And now we are getting closer to the voting. It starts January 3rd in Iowa and January 10 in New Hampshire. So I think one of the calculations of Romney’s people is can we count on him to fall just as all the others did – Bachmann, Perry, Cain – who went up the ladder and then came down the ladder? Will he fall and will he fall in time? So as of now what they’re trying to do is for Romney himself not to do the heavy hitting. He’s still kind of staying above the fray, but his surrogates – they’re putting surrogates out who have been very tough on New Gingrich.

MS. IFILL: Why, Major, is Newt Gingrich in this position now? What is behind his rise?

MR. GARRETT: A couple of things. One is the absence of other GOP heavyweights who decided not to run in this presidential race. Think about it this way. If Newt Gingrich was on the debate stage, as he has been throughout, and Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, was there, Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, was there, John Thune, senator from South Dakota was there, Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey was there –

MS. IFILL: How do we know they wouldn’t have blown up?

MR. GARRETT: Well, what they – what they would have had is something that Gingrich didn’t possess, which is contemporary political experience, contemporary political victories, an attachment to contemporary political challenges within their states and within the Republican Party writ large. But they’re not there. And this field, Gingrich understood even during the time his campaign was imploding in June and July, wasn’t strong enough and that there would be someone who would become the ultimate repository of the “we can’t stand Mitt Romney” coalition of the Republican Party.

Gingrich always believed that Romney was misaligned with the way the Republican Party as a nominating party is. He’s Northeastern. They’re southern and western. He’s ideologically flexible. They’re ideologically rigid. He is Christian, yes, but of a Mormon faith that is not universally thought of as comfortable with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about how –

MR. GARRETT: All these things misalign Romney. Gingrich knew that and is rising, as Chuck said, at precisely the right time.

MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about how Romney has tried to respond to this because he settled – he seems to have settled an argument that he is using to target both Newt Gingrich and President Obama. And we heard a little bit of it today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

MR. ROMNEY: What distinguishes them was their capacity to lead, their character, their vision, their ability to bring other people along, to convince others. The capacity to lead is what we need in America’s president.

MS. IFILL: Now, he was comparing himself to former presidents he admired and saying basically neither Barack Obama, nor Newt Gingrich know how to lead, but I do. Now, does that – is that resonating?

MR. BABINGTON: Gwen, what seems to be resonating more is a more emotional and forceful argument. And that is what Newt Gingrich brings, for good and for bad, but he – he tends to say things that are over the top and a lot of people who don’t like him so much say that’s a ridiculous thing to say. You’ve –

MS. IFILL: And you’re using understatement to describe that he’s over the top –

MR. BABINGTON: Exactly. But what – I talked to a lot of people – we’re trying to figure out some of the things we’re seeing in these polls that don’t make a lot of sense that people who don’t, for example, think he’s terribly honest still are supporting him. Why is that? They love the way that he takes on the news media. You know, he tends to berate some of the reporters in these debates. I talked to a tea party person who said, you know what, when he does that, we feel like he speaks for us.

They think he will be very forceful against Barack Obama. And you’ve seen in the past, when some of these other candidates did rise, a lot of them did tend to have forceful language – Michele Bachmann. Remember, even for a while Donald Trump seemed to be getting a lot of attention. I never talked to anyone who thought Donald Trump would be the nominee, but they liked the way –

MR. HARWOOD: He’s a debate moderator.

MR. BABINGTON: He might be a debate – but remember even then he was still toying with the idea that Barack Obama might not be born in the United States. As absurd as some of us think that was, it resonated with Republican audiences who are angry and they want someone who’ll be very, very forceful.

MR. HARWOOD: Major, you’re talking before about Gwen’s question, where does the Gingrich support come from. My operating theory in this race has been you’ve got a bunch of athletes in the starting line. Mitt Romney’s healthy and reasonably fast, not terribly fast. And everybody else in the race has got to pulled hamstring or a broken ankle. Herman Cain didn’t have political experience. We saw what happened to him. Michele Bachmann and others have risen and fallen, Rick Perry.

My question now is how debilitated is Newt Gingrich by the fact that he’s been operating basically with a mom-and-pop campaign and only now has begun raising money. Some people say in the age of social networking that’s not as much of a handicap as has been thought in the past.

MR. GARRETT: It hasn’t been a handicap so far – and you heard Newt Gingrich’s comments in that interview. He’s cautious about this. I’ll tell you this. He’s reverse engineered his campaign. He is most organized in South Carolina. I project he will win South Carolina because he’s temperamentally fit South Carolina and he’s best organized there. Then he’s better organized in New Hampshire. He’s least organized in Iowa. He got the phones turned on just this week there.

MS. IFILL: He’s leading in Florida.

MR. GARRETT: And he’s leading in Florida.

In Iowa, there’s a sense of organization is very powerful. Ron Paul will be an extremely important factor in Iowa, but what Gingrich has right now is electricity. And those of us who covered Newt Gingrich before he was speaker understood what he could do in a room with people who’d never seen him before. This idea of merchandizing has a powerful psychological effect on people who want to think they’re motivated by ideas. And if the timing is right and Gingrich can create this sort of electricity about people who think I’m not just for a Republican. I’m not just for Newt Gingrich. I’m for big ideas. It creates a kind of a galvanizing, reinforcing energy. And if he can tap into that and apply it at just the right time, Gingrich could be a very formidable foe for Mitt Romney.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things I was thinking about as I’m listening to you talking is about the fighter in Newt Gingrich and that many conservatives are saying they really want to see that in a Republican nominee, but we’re seeing a week in which Newt Gingrich is pulling back and not trying to do attack ads and being the more gentle, softer Newt Gingrich. So how can you have the two things together? The conservatives want that fight –

MS. IFILL: Can it possibly last?

MS. SIMENDINGER: And can it last, yes.

MR. BABINGTON: It’s a great question and Gingrich may be able to pull it off because one thing he does is – when he’s talking about the context of Republicans, he says, let’s don’t – let’s don’t beat up on each other. Remember, he said that several times in the debates. It always got a good applause. It resonates very well with Republicans, but you know who he’s really tough on is Obama, the news media, the business-as-usual Congress, and these sort of things. And now the question is can he maintain that?

MS. IFILL: He’s not known for having the thickest skin in the business.

MR. GARRETT: No. Or a lot of personal discipline.

MR. HARWOOD: But it’s a very effective line for him while he’s getting all this flack from establishment conservative columnists and from Mitt Romney and others to say I have one opponent, that’s Barack Obama.

MR. BABINGTON: So far he has shown a thick skin in the last couple of days. Now, we got –

MR. GARRETT: And in Iowa, that’s crucial. All of my experience in Iowa says those who attack late lose. The late attackers always lose in Iowa because Iowa voters, both Republicans and Democrats, internalize that as they’re weak, they’re flailing, and they’re going negative. We want to have a positive vision. And so Gingrich is trying to stay on that turf.

And quickly, on this leadership question, it’s very much a mix. There are Republicans who know and rose with Newt Gingrich first Republican majority in 40 years. That didn’t happen just because the clock said after 40 years you get a majority. No. Gingrich led that revolution largely. He also mismanaged it horribly. People forget. Not only was there a coup in summer of 1997, he barely won reelection as speaker in January of ’97, only two years after becoming speaker.

MS. IFILL: Which means he can get elected, but can he govern? And people are making governing decisions at this time, even – at least – up until now they haven’t been, but at some point, when votes actually start to cast, aren’t there governing –

MR. GARRETT: And you need to delegate and build a team, and Gingrich –

MR. HARWOOD: Of course, isn’t there also a question, though about Gingrich – excuse me, about Romney, when he says can he lead other people, bring them along. Why can’t Mitt Romney bring Republican Party along right now?

MS. IFILL: Yes, and that’s the question right now – that all of this is anybody but Romney still.

MR. BABINGTON: Romney has been stuck at about 25 percent in the Republican polls for months and months and months, which – makes us think about 75 percent want someone other than Romney. January 3, in Iowa, they’re going to have to decide –

MR. GARRETT: But he’s been dropping from 25. That’s the other story. Gingrich has been rising and Romney has been falling. He’s falling in Iowa, falling in New Hampshire –

MS. IFILL: A cautionary tale for everyone at the table, which is that four years ago right now, Rudolf Giuliani was leading in all the polls. So just keep in mind, things can change again. Now –

MR. BABINGTON: And Hillary Clinton in the Democratic –

MS. IFILL: And Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. So we’re going to turn to the Democrats because this turned out to be the week that the president chose to start drawing contrast with Republicans who want his job. From tax cuts to foreign policy, to consumer protection, President Obama’s basic argument was that this wasn’t really about politics.

PRES. OBAMA: I just want to make clear. This is not about me. They shouldn’t extend the payroll tax cut for me. They shouldn’t extend unemployment insurance for me. This is for 160 million people who in 23 days are going to see their taxes go up if Congress doesn’t act.

MS. IFILL: That sounds good. This sounds really good, John, but it is about him, isn’t it?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, he’s running for reelection. He wants four more years, so yes in that respect it is about him. But he also has a point because in fact there will be a real tax increase if this is not extended. I think in fact it will be extended because Republicans had been giving ground on this. They’re divided on strategy, but at the end of the day, Republican leaders and the White House have agreed that it will be extended. But the president is framing an argument he began in – earlier in the week in Kansas, when he invoked Teddy Roosevelt and said essentially that he is trying to advance a 21st century version of the Progressive Era reforms that Teddy Roosevelt ushered in to temper the excesses of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. And he talked about the long, widening income gap in this country, the fight to give a fair shot to people in the middle class and cast Republicans on the side of the winners in this economy.

And he’s going to try to prosecute that argument. Ever since the collapse of the grand bargain negotiations with the speaker over the summer, he’s turned into a public phase of argumentation, not private negotiations. He’s going to try to beat them over the head publicly.

MS. IFILL: Is that the strategy, Alexis, that they’re going to say – they will say we’re on your side, on the side of the middle class, on the side of the little person, whether it’s defending consumers for this consumer protection appointment that the Senate blocked this week or whether it’s talking about income inequality, which he doesn’t do that. Is that the goal, setting up the contrast with the Republicans?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, absolutely and he’s also playing the flip side of it, too. You know, you were talking about how he’s trying to say that this is about you. This is about you, the middle class. I’m the warrior for you.

He’s also making the flip argument, which is they’re trying to make this about me by saying that they want to oppose everything that I am for. So he’s trying to play two sides. One is for the middle class base Democratic voters, the other, the playing above politics, that’s very much for independent voters. That is what independent voters respond to.

So right now the president, after the summer, as John aptly described it, the president and his whole team felt we have no choice. Congress is not working with us. The Republicans are beating us up. Independent voters and most voters are describing us as weak, that the president is weak, ineffectual. We have to change this narrative. And he has done a very dramatic alteration of his whole political persona, I would argue. And what we heard in Kansas was the beginning of his campaign. And we’re going to hear this again and again and again. And it’s very familiar. Do we all remember putting people first? It’s the people versus the powerful. This is very dyed in the wool –

MS. IFILL: Populism.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely.

MR. BABINGTON: But there’s people and there’s people of different income. I’m fascinated by this payroll tax debate. I don’t fully understand it because Republicans, especially in recent years, have really branded themselves as we are a party that cuts taxes and does not raise taxes. Aren’t they somewhat vulnerable in this debate of being pegged as more excited about making sure there’s no tax increases on the wealthy and less so about the middle class? Isn’t that the argument that President Obama and the Democrats are making here?

MR. HARWOOD: Yes, and he’s been winning the argument. Republicans know that they’re behind the eight ball on that and it’s why the leaders, McConnell and Boehner, have made clear we want this to happen. Now, Boehner’s got resistance from the rank and file in the House. A lot of people, on various grounds, one, if you cut payroll taxes, you endanger the Social Security Trust Fund. If you do a temporary tax cut, that’s not really a solution, especially if you pay for it with a permanent tax increase on the wealthy. Others think it’s not necessary – that we need to focus on deficit reduction right now, rather than trying to stimulate the economy. So there’s a real question as to how it can get done, but whether it will – should be done is a subtle question in the eyes of Republican leaders and now we’re about negotiating the details.

MR. GARRETT: You mentioned the president changing his rhetoric. And I think we began to pick up on that in September and it’s been flowing ever since. But if you look at his polling numbers, they’ve gone up from 41 percent approval in Gallup in September, October, November, up to 43 now, but still shallow by historical standards. I think in the modern era only Jimmy Carter had lower or near lower or near as low public approval ratings according to Gallup at this stage of his presidency. Everyone else was higher. Now, George Herbert Walker Bush was higher. He was at 56, ended up losing. I’m not saying it’s predictive, but is the White House confident based on this rhetoric and what they’ve seen in the last four months that it’s actually working – that it’s changing people’s minds.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that you hear them talking about at the White House is this sense that his number, his overall job approval number could be lower and it’s not lower. That’s one. That for an economy that is this sad that it could be lower. And the other thing is they look deeper into the poll responses to particular kinds of policies. So when John is describing public support for the payroll tax extension or even an expansion or the concept of extending unemployment insurance – very important to a lot of people who have no jobs and in red states, by the way, also – the support there for whacking millionaires to add a surtax, a short-term surtax, very high. So the president is thinking, well, you may not like me this minute, but you are responding to these policies and I am embracing those policies.

MR. HARWOOD: And he also made the case that the job approval number is the referendum on me number, it’s not the choice number. And they’re setting themselves up for a more favorable choice later.

MS. IFILL: There seemed to be another thing they’re doing which – the example is two things that happened this week. One was the administration’s decision to back away from the idea of allowing girls under the age of 17 to get this contraceptive day-after pill called Plan B, and that was surprising because the secretary of Health and Human Services, not the president, was the one who pulled back on that. And the other was the decision to – for the administration to drop its complaint against Boeing – the National Labor Relations Board just quietly let that go away. Once again, people who are on the left were puzzled by both of those decisions and it seems like fights that the administration decided not to pick.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the president’s been doing this for a number of months. If you remember, he also put in abeyance the smog rule, the EPA smog rule. So there’ve been a number of decisions like this where the president has basically armed his executive branch to postpone issues that he believed could be – they could envision the attack ads, the political attack ads. Let’s postpone these things to the future.

For instance, in a discussion about the payroll tax, why are Republicans drawing back into the Keystone XL Pipeline question, right? This got mixed in. Apples and oranges to the payroll tax discussion, because they know that this splinters Democrats. It draws back into the debate a very uncomfortable discussion for the president that he had postponed into – well into the future after the election.

So is anybody shocked that the president said I can see an attack ad that could involve 11-year-old girls in a discussion about morning-after contraception?

MS. IFILL: Let’s not even have that.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Let’s not have that discussion.

MR. BABINGTON: Initially a reach for the independent voters, right, who are going to be crucial a year from now or almost a year from now are not in play now. And the hope on the Obama team’s part is that these Republicans, whoever survives is going to move himself so far to the right that he or she – Bachmann’s not out of it yet – is going to have a hard time appealing to – moving back to the center for those voters, right?

MR. HARWOOD: Well and in fact the administration hopes that conservatism of Republicans on social issues will make some of those social issues an affirmative weapon for them, but they didn’t want to provide a fat target on Plan B.

MR. GARRETT: But briefly, you can use executive orders to create jobs. You can also use executive power to protect your own.

MS. IFILL: It’s very interesting to watch the administration decide who they’re going to respond to. Up until now, they’ve only been talking about Mitt Romney. And now this week, they’ve had to pause and say, really, Newt Gingrich, hmm. I wonder if they want to just step back and let the Republicans take each other out or whether they feel the need to get in on this and start taking down Republicans before the primary really plays itself out.

MR. HARWOOD: I would expect the administration to continue, either loudly or not so loudly, going after Mitt Romney because that’s the nominee they fear the most. They believe that Newt Gingrich would be a target rich environment for them in a general election. So they may talk about him a little bit because he’s much more in the conversation, but Romney’s the main chance that they’re keeping their eye on.

MS. SIMENDINGER: They think it will be Romney and they know that in the horse-race match-ups – and Chuck wrote about them – has written about them this week – that the president does overwhelmingly better than Newt Gingrich in some of these in this early, early stage, but it’s a much tighter match-up in these polls against Romney.

MR. BABINGTON: You also feel that in some ways Romney is a more predictable type of candidate. Gingrich is so unusual. They’re afraid that some strange things might happen, but they do think Romney is the most likely –

MR. HARWOOD: Speaking of unpredictability, Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal today said Newt Gingrich is a live grenade – a human live grenade walking around with his finger on the pin saying watch this. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: Actually everyone’s fully expecting him to be the one that pulled the pin, not anybody else.

Thank you everyone. Once again, we have to leave you a few minutes early this week so that you can have the chance to support your local station, which in turn supports us. By the time we see you here next week, there will have been two more debates and who knows what else. So keep up with daily developments on air and online at the PBS NewsHour, go to the Washington Week website to see what our panelists are writing about. You can find us all at Then join us around the table again next week, on Washington Week. Goodnight.