MS. IFILL: Voting is actually about to begin in Iowa. What will Tuesday tell us about who’s got next to the Republican primary race? What will it mean for policy? And why President Obama is paying attention, tonight on Washington Week.
The final stretch. Can Mitt Romney win?
FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R-MA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I hope you understand that this is not just an election to replace a president. This is an election about the soul of America.
MS. IFILL: Will Ron Paul stage an upset?
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: The important thing for me is that a lot of people are waking up.
MS. IFILL: Is Rick Santorum surging?
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: And you’ve got the moderate primary which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you’ve got three folks who are running as strong conservatives.
MS. IFILL: Is Newt Gingrich fading?
FORMER SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: You don’t have to have a nasty, negative, mudd-slinging, consultant-driven campaign. And I refuse to engage in that kind of politics.
MS. IFILL: And is time running out for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry? The polls tell the tale, but, finally, so will the voters. We preview the Iowa Caucuses with Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post; Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times; Susan Davis of USA Today; and Christina Bellantoni of CQ Roll Call.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It all comes down to the final days, if not minutes. And why should the Iowa caucuses be different than anything else we’ve covered this year? Iowa has taken us from the heat of August, when Michele Bachmann was the breakout candidate, through the breezes of autumn when Rick Perry briefly ruled the day, through Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, then Ron Paul, now Rick Santorum. And steady as she goes, Mitt Romney has never quite managed to lose his frontrunner’s grip. Hundreds of millions of dollars of political advertising are crowding Iowa’s airwaves in the final days.
MR. ROMNEY: It’s time for this pessimistic president to step aside and let American optimism that built this greatest nation on earth build a greater future for our children.
MAN [Advertisement]: Serial hypocrites and flip-floppers can’t clean up the mess. One man stands alone consistent, incorruptible, guided by faith and principle: Ron Paul, the one we’ve been looking for.
MR. GINGRICH: Working together we can rebuild the America we love and get people working again. I’m Newt Gingrich and I approved this message.
MAN: Which Republican running for president voted for the bridge to nowhere earmark? Yes. Suzy from Des Moines.
WOMAN: Rick Santorum?
MS. IFILL: The polls this week have shown a new reality: Romney out in front, followed closely by Ron Paul, with Rick Santorum surging, and Newt Gingrich fading. Jeff Zeleny and Karen Tumulty join us from Iowa tonight. So, guys, what’s the single most compelling thing you’ve seen out there on the campaign trail, starting with you, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, in a Republican primary season that has sometimes felt like speed dating, I think one of the most surreal moments came at a Ron Paul rally the other night when, all of a sudden, to everyone’s surprise, on stage walks Michele Bachmann’s state co-chairman, one of her most high-profile supporters and announces that he’s switching teams and going over to Ron Paul. I mean, the Ron Paul-Michele Bachmann overlap vote was something I wouldn’t have believed existed.
MS. IFILL: How about you, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: I think that kind of puts the icing on what’s been a very volatile campaign season. But I think at the end of the day here, probably what’s most surprising is the fact that Mitt Romney is spending New Year’s Eve in Iowa. He’s waking up New Year’s Day in Iowa and he’s staying the morning after the Iowa caucuses in Iowa. This is the look, the feel, the confidence of someone who thinks that the nomination is within his grasp.
He’s been all in in Iowa internally for a long time, but they’ve been managing their expectations very well. They’ve been building their campaign organization sort of under the radar. But now that everything remains so fractured at the end of the day, there’s so much support, at least they believe sort of divided up among all their rivals. He is all in here, and that’s something that we wouldn’t have expected only a few weeks ago.
MS. IFILL: So, Karen, and Sue and Christina are going to pitch in here for a minute. I’m curious about what Jeff just said about expectations and ideas and home-stretch strategies. What exactly are these candidates – starting with Mitt Romney, pick up from where he left off, but let’s also go on to someone like Ron Paul who could either win or come in second. What are their home stretch strategies, I guess?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think the thing that, as Jeff suggested, that is really working right now in Mitt Romney’s favor is the fragmentation of the electorate. He is now leading the field, polling at around 25 percent in a CNN poll this week. Well, that is no higher than what he won – that he lost with four years ago. He came in a distant second with 25 percent. That may be enough this time to win the caucuses for him because the rest – there are so many other directions that voters can go in this time. So if he does win, it may well be a victory where three-quarters of Iowa voters are voting for somebody else.
MS. IFILL: So those evangelical voters that Mike Huckabee won last time, Jeff, they are split many different directions this time?
MR. ZELENY: At least that’s what it looks like right now. But in the final days of this race here, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is trying to convince enough of them to come over to his side here to increase their argument, increase the strength of the evangelical vote going out of Iowa. I think one thing that Rick Santorum has sort of going in his favor is that as a campaign, as a candidate, you always sort of want to get hot and surge at the end, and that’s sort of what he’s doing.
We’re not talking – we’re not seeing as much about Newt Gingrich, who’s in fact sort of doing the opposite, at least it seems. It seems that he is sliding sort of back at the end of the campaign here. So I think Rick Santorum is someone to keep an eye on here because for all the energy and enthusiasm, intensity about wanting to beat the president, and a lot of Republicans think Mitt Romney has the best chance, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t want to have him be that person. They want to at least have someone else in the race here. So Rick Santorum is someone to keep an eye on.
MS. IFILL: Christina?
MS. BELLANTONI: Jeff, doesn’t Santorum sort of remind you a little bit of the position where Mike Huckabee was in 2008, where everybody was wondering, well, if he won in Iowa, he doesn’t have any money, what’s he going to do next? I mean, if Santorum were to suddenly come in, you know, first or second somehow, could he even go anywhere from there?
MR. ZELENY: That’s a really good question. Rick Santorum has spent a ton of time in Iowa, but the place he’s been to most after that is South Carolina. He has been campaigning there some. He doesn’t have much money, but there is some thinking inside their campaign that he would get at least some grassroots support.
And I think this Santorum surge has to be put into some perspective here. He’s surging from the very bottom here, like 3 percent, 5 percent, up a little bit. So even some of his supporters don’t necessarily think he’s going to win. But if he would beat Rick Perry, which is an open question, we don’t know if that’s going to happen, but if he would, you know, perhaps some people would coalesce around him and he would go on to be an alternative to Romney in South Carolina. But he’s in no way prepared to go the distance in this race, even like Ron Paul is or like Mitt Romney is.
MS. TUMULTY: Although interesting, even with the limited resources that he has, he did in fact make an ad buy in New Hampshire, which is sort of surprising because on the face of it, it does not look like a state that would be particularly for Rick Santorum. But he points out he’s been to that state more often than any other candidate except for Jon Huntsman.
MS. IFILL: Sue?
MS. DAVIS: For how many of the candidates is Iowa make or break for, in the sense that if they don’t place in the top tier, this is probably the end of the road for them?
MS. IFILL: Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: I think the most obvious example of that is Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll in August, was really the sweetheart of the Iowa Republican Party at that point. People were standing in line for hours to get into her tent at the straw poll. And now she’s making this just – just finished this sprint across 99 counties trying to sort of revive a campaign that is now running in some polls at the very back.
MS. IFILL: Jeff, you know, I read somewhere today that Newt Gingrich – the negative advertising directed at Newt Gingrich has been half of the advertising on the air – political advertising on the air in Iowa in the last couple of weeks. That certainly has to explain some of his incredible collapse.
MR. ZELENY: It does, Gwen, without question. I mean, he had really thrived by the strength of his debate performances. Well, a couple of things here happened. One, the debates ended, so he’s had the last couple of weeks to sort of fend for himself. And anytime you hear a candidate complaining about negative advertising but not responding in kind in the same medium, you know they’re in trouble. And he’s still getting decent crowds, but Newt Gingrich has always gotten good crowds when he’s bothered to actually be campaigning.
But if you talk to his strategists, his supporters, they will say quite honestly that this information campaign against him, really from all sides – it’s not just the Romney super-pack. It’s also Ron Paul probably more than anyone else. He has run just a barrage of negative ads against Speaker Gingrich. And Gingrich campaign does not have the organization to respond. And it appears that they don’t have the money to respond. They’ve been very slow in their ads on their own. So if he’s going to sort of rise again here, he’s going to do it all on the brand of his name and his own work. There’s not much backup here for him.
MS. IFILL: Sue?
MS. DAVIS: Talk a little bit about going into New Hampshire. And Mitt Romney, it seems pretty curious that he’s now leading in Iowa. If he is capable of winning Iowa, which in 2008 seemed almost impossible, he’s heading into New Hampshire really strong. On the ground there, is there any sense of inevitability about Mitt Romney as the nominee?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, more and more people I talk to, including voters who do not like Mitt Romney, it’s like the – you see them going through the five stages of grief, and they’re out of anger and denial and they’ve moving toward acceptance.
MS. IFILL: You’re hearing the same thing, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: Yes. I think that’s true. And also – but, you know, one thing that is uniting all of these Republicans or at least in the long term is the idea that, boy, they sure want to make President Obama a one-term president. And they aren’t in love with Mitt Romney. Karen is absolutely right about that. Even at Romney’s own rallies – I went around the room on Thursday in Mason City. He had a nice crowd, but it’s really hard to find someone – someone may have Romney sticker on or whatnot, but it’s hard to find someone who’s so passionate or committed for him. But, you know, it’s okay. A vote is a vote. So even if someone is not entirely into him, I think there is a growing sense that he’s the strongest nominee of the Republican Party to accomplish their ultimate goal.
MS. IFILL: Christina.
MS. BELLANTONI: And do we think it might be a little different this year as opposed to 2008 that some of these candidates may not actually drop out if they don’t come in the top three in Iowa, because, for example, Bachmann says that she’s going to go to that debate in New Hampshire and then she’s going to go straight to South Carolina to sort of make her Evangelical pitch there. You know, she could drop out after that. But unless Santorum, he said he’d finish – if he finished last, he’d drop out. Do you think anybody’s going to drop out on Tuesday night?
MS. TUMULTY: I think it’s going to be – Michele Bachmann, if she does really badly, is going to be sort of hard pressed to make a case even going to South Carolina. But you look at someone like Rick Perry. He’s still sitting apparently on millions of dollars which he could use to go forward. And, you know, that money is there to be spent and it’s just sort of how long he actually has an appetite for this race.
MR. ZELENY: And I think one of the things that we saw propel some of these candidates in the race up until this point was debates. Once the debates get going again, there won’t be as many. But that could possibly keep people in the race longer than previous years, Christina. I think that’s a real possibility.
MS. IFILL: Ron Paul – we have to ask you about Ron Paul because there is some possibility that he could even best Mitt Romney on Tuesday night. How strong is he right now in Iowa? And then how much can he use that as leverage to get another leg up in New Hampshire?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I’ve been surprised at some of the people I’ve run into at Ron Paul’s events. Four years ago, they were sort of this kind of hardcore libertarian crowd, but this year I’ve run into evangelicals and home-schoolers. I think his appeal this year is somewhat broader than it has been. And also, as Kent Sorenson, Michele Bachmann’s recently departed campaign chairman, said as he was joining Ron Paul’s forces, he says, these people who support Ron Paul, it doesn’t matter if there’s five feet of snow on the ground caucus night – which, thankfully, it looks like there will not be – he says, these people are going to show up.
MS. IFILL: Intensity, Jeff.
MR. ZELENY: I think there is intensity, no question. And the only question for Ron Paul is, what is his ceiling of support? You hear every other candidate, really, every single candidate, from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry to Michele Bachmann going after Ron Paul on his foreign policy views. They say he has dangerous views. And Rick Santorum perhaps crystallizes this argument as good as anything. He said, the things that you like most about Ron Paul, you know, the slashing the debt, slashing the size of government, cutting the deficit, he won’t be able to do because he can’t pass a bill in Congress, according to Rick Santorum.
You know, the things that you may be sort of worried about, his foreign policy views, he will be able to do if he’s commander-in-chief. So a lot of incoming arguments are trying to cut down Ron Paul. Karen’s right – he has a lot of committed supporters. But I think they’re probably encamped a little bit, and a lot of mainstream Republicans may be having second thoughts on him in the final days. But turnout is a big question. If he gets a lot of his own supporters here, it could change the equation.
MS. IFILL: Well, Jeff Zeleny, Karen Tumulty, it’s so nice to actually have some voting on the horizon. So I know you’re going to be out there all weekend on the trail. And I’m going to let you get right to it. Thanks so much for joining us.
MS. TUMULTY: Thank you. Happy New Year.
MR. ZELENY: Gwen, thank you.
MS. IFILL: Happy New Year to you too.
Well, there is more than presidential politics afoot this year. Congress is in upheaval too. Consider these numbers compiled by our partners at National Journal: six members of the House and Senate resigned, four under an ethical cloud; but 10 House members and nine senators are retiring outright. Another 16 members are quitting to run for other offices. And don’t kid yourself when you hear them talk about hating Washington. All but three of those are running for the U.S. Senate or, of course, for president. How much will trickle – will the trickledown from the presidential race then affect the makeup of Congress? Sue?
MS. DAVIS: That’s a great question. I don’t think we can know for sure until we know who the Republican nominee is because that is definitely going to cloud – the national debate is going to affect state by state, particularly because in a lot of the states where there’s going to be competitive statewide races for the Senate – Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania – these are also states where the presidential race is going to come into play.
I think Barack Obama, for a lot of senators running for reelection – I just said Missouri. I’ll use it as a good example. This is a state where it’s Democratic held – Claire McCaskill, who is making a very strong point to run independent of the president, to run independent of the Democratic Party because it is a state that has trended Republican. It’s going to be a tough reelection and that she is going to, as many Democrats are going to need to do in tough states, is distinguish themselves separate from Barrack Obama.
There is no competitive state right now where the president’s poll numbers are anything that would delight an incumbent to run with him. I think I would not be surprised to see a lot of campaign events where the president’s campaigning in battleground states where the senators or candidates up for reelection –
MS. IFILL: Are absent?
MS. DAVIS: – happen to be busy that day. And that’s a trend that we saw a little bit in 2010 and I think we’ll see it again in 2012.
MS. IFILL: Well, Christina, you know, it’s interesting. She talked about the distancing yourself from the president. The best way to do that is to quit. And this week we saw Senator Ben Nelson, the Democrat from Nebraska, decide that he wasn’t going to run for reelection, which caused great dismay among some Democrats. Was that one of the most consequential retirements of the year?
MS. BELLANTONI: I think it does – it gives the Republicans a much better chance of taking the seats that they need to win control of the Senate come 2013 when they come into Congress. But, I think that this is an area where it actually helps Democrats a little bit because they’re not going to have to spend money there. They’re saying that they think that the seat can be competitive in Nebraska, but it’s not going to be competitive in Nebraska. They don’t even have a candidate yet. So this allows the Democrats to sort of focus their efforts on Massachusetts and Nevada, which are two Republican-held seats that the Democrats feel pretty confident they can flip if it’s a good year for Barack Obama.
And then there’s one exception with the Obama popularity. He’s still doing okay in Virginia, which everybody’s a little surprised by because it’s a state that’s clearly a battleground. He won it. He was the first Democrat to win it since 1964. And Tim Kaine has not spent a lot of time with Barack Obama. He’s running for Senate on the Democratic ticket for an open seat there. So that will be interesting. And then Ohio, where Sherrod Brown, the incumbent senator there, is actually polling better than Barack Obama right now.
MS. IFILL: You know, I’m really curious looking at the list of people who decide to retire, whether – the people who decided to leave Congress are more likely to be liberals who are discouraged or conservatives who are discouraged. For instance, you think about Lynn Woolsey in California, Barney Frank in Massachusetts – staunch liberals, kind of thrown up their hands and decided to quit. Is there any significance to that?
MS. DAVIS: I think there may be something to that. I also think to a certain extent they’re veteran lawmakers. I think when you look at members like Barney Frank, who had sort of their marquis legislative achievement in the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul that they did, that they’ve reached sort of the end of the their legislative career and they know that. I’m not sure that Barney frank was going to have any problems getting reelected, regardless –
MS. IFILL: Even though he kind of ran a tighter respected race last time.
MS. DAVIS: He did, but if he won in 2010, it’s hard to see how 2012 will be a harder year for Democrats than 2010 was.
MS. BELLANTONI: And that’s where redistricting matters so much, because for Frank, he was basically going to have to reintroduce himself to new constituents because they lost a seat in Massachusetts and had to reconfigure all of the seats.
MS. IFILL: Are there other places where people have drawn the lines differently, it made it a bigger challenge to get reelected than it used to be?
MS. BELLANTONI: Yes. And, in fact, just today, Steve Austria, freshman from Ohio, just announced he’s going to retire and that that’s in part because he was drawn in with another member in this Ohio redistricting process. So he’s a freshman. It’s sort of surprising to see somebody leave unless they’re under an ethical investigation or something.
MS. IFILL: Are moderates more – I think about Ben Nelson who has a reputation for being a kind of a blue-dog Democrat. Are moderates more under fire than they’ve ever been? And do they have less reason to stay because they have less say in a polarized Congress?
MS. DAVIS: Dan Maffei is a former congressman who lost in 2010 and he was sort of seen as a typical moderate. And he’s talked about this. He says the problem when you’re a moderate lawmaker is that you don’t actually ever get to spend much time legislating because you tend to represent states and districts that are so competitive that you are constantly under fire both from often your base of your own party and from the opposing party. So the amount of time it spends fundraising, campaigning, can be exhausting.
I also think Ben Nelson – I mean, he probably would have faced a tough road to reelection, but he certainly had taken the steps. You know, he had spent $1 million trying to improve his image. He has been running polling. He had hired staff. And running the kind of campaign that he was going to have to run, sometimes lawmakers just don’t have the appetite for it.
MS. BELLANTONI: Or the energy. And in a lot of cases, you know, they’re maybe getting up in years and don’t want to go through it all again. And Nelson is an interesting example because the tea party took credit for him retiring and the progressive Democrats took credit for him retiring, both the groups saying, good riddance, which I think is an example of how there just aren’t moderates. And moderates in Congress don’t really have a lot of friends anymore.
MS. IFILL: You know, you talked about the tea party, which is interesting because in Iowa, the evangelicals are supposed to have such a great impact because of what happened with Mike Huckabee four years ago. Iowans say that’s not necessarily the case. And now this is our first post-2010 midterm test of whether the tea party really can get people elected or keep people from running.
MS. DAVIS: I think there is going to be some unintended consequences of the tea party. On the presidential level I think it’s interesting because we are – currently exist in a world where it seems likely that Mitt Romney could have the nomination who I would say is the opposite of a tea party candidate. But in part what’s propelling him there is division among the base, which the tea party is a part of. And on the congressional level, the tea party wave, as we refer to it, that came in in 2010, I think that we are creating a climate which it’s very possible there could be a backlash. I think –
MS. IFILL: Certainly after the payroll tax cut debacle a couple of weeks ago.
MS. DAVIS: Exactly. And if you look at – Pew put out some really interesting polling in mid-December where it said – where they drilled down on who do you blame for this. And by significant margins, people suggest that Republican leaders are more to blame than Democratic leaders – that they see the Republican Party as one of gridlock more than the Democratic Party. And I think that that is being linked to sort of the tea party element within Congress that has not been willing to compromise on some of these big issues.
MS. BELLANTONI: Yes. And even with the presidential race, you haven’t seen the tea party coalesce behind a candidate. You know, first it was sort of maybe Bachmann. They didn’t endorse anybody. You know, there are multiple tea party groups, of course, not one cohesive unit.
MS. IFILL: But she said she started the tea party caucus in Congress and for a long time ran on that.
MS. BELLANTONI: Yes. But she really hasn’t been able to benefit from any ads or spending or really active grassroots campaigning. They at first seemed like maybe they would like Gingrich for a little while. Ron Paul calls himself the original tea partier. So you really just haven’t seen any real cohesion. And there haven’t been any tea party rallies in almost a year.
MS. IFILL: Yes. Give us a sense about what you are watching for as far as tossups in some of these races. I mean, I think about Scott Brown in Massachusetts, who seems to be tacking a little bit to the left in order to hold his own against Elizabeth Warren. Anything else that you’re watching?
MS. DAVIS: I have to say the Senate obviously is up for grabs. But just by the math, the Democrats control the Senate with 53 seats, 47 Republican seats. There is – the important number right now is nine. That’s the number of seats that are considered competitive, seven of which are held by Democrats, just two by Republicans. So just by the math Democrats face an uphill battle.
I would say the payroll tax fight that we had was the first time where I thought the House could actually be in play if this trend continues through 2012 with this kind of gridlock and this sort of brinksmanship politics, I think the House could be called into question.
MS. IFILL: Sue Davis, thank you very much. We want to welcome Christina Bellantoni who on Monday becomes the NewsHour’s political editor. So welcome to the fray in public television land. Christina.
MS. BELLANTONI: Thank you very much.
MS. IFILL: Thank you. And welcome.
MS. IFILL: Thank you everybody. We’re done here, but the conversation will continue online where you can keep up with all the best political journalism at pbs.org. Just click on Washington Week and the PBS NewsHour. We’ll be in New Hampshire to tell you the story on the ground in a special granite state primary preview. See you from there next week on Washington Week. And Happy New Year, everyone. Goodnight.