MS. IFILL: It’s getting nasty out there. Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich, President Obama versus the still stuttering economy. We tell you what one has to do with the other, tonight on “Washington Week.”
And it’s on.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.
FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) [GOP President Candidate]: Maybe Governor Romney in the spirit of openness should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments. But let’s be clear about that.
MS. IFILL: Republican frontrunners jockey for first place as the runners-up struggle for attention.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Folks, $1 billion in the mainstream media will make this a very, very ugly election.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.
MS. IFILL: For the final four Florida is pivotal, again. Meanwhile, the man they want to beat wraps himself in the trappings of the presidency. Whether traveling the country –
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Nevada.
MS. IFILL: Or delivering a pointed State of the Union address.
PRES. OBAMA: The state of our union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now.
MS. IFILL: But is the economy rebounding quickly enough? Covering the week, Dan Balz of the Washington Post; John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News; Jackie Calmes of the New York Times; and David Wessel 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.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Was it only a week ago that we were wondering what was going to happen in South Carolina? Well, the political world has shifted and re-shifted multiple times since then. Newt Gingrich, who used debates and big ideas to score a major win in the Palmetto State less than a week ago, brought grandiosity to Florida.
MR. GINGRICH: We will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.
I was attacked the other night for being grandiose. John F. Kennedy standing there saying we’ll get to the moon in eight years was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose.
MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney, who saw his political life pass before his eyes after losing to Gingrich by 12 points in South Carolina, took direct aim at that.
MR. ROMNEY: If I had a business executive come to me and say they want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, you’re fired. Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that’s what got us into the trouble we’re in now. We’ve got to say no to this kind of spending.
MS. IFILL: And Rick Santorum, still looking for a path to victory, accused Romney and Gingrich of engaging in personal, petty politics.
MR. SANTORUM: Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies – and that’s not the worst thing in the world – and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard, and you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.
MS. IFILL: So, Dan, a week later, how different is this campaign than it was last time I saw you?
MR. BALZ: Gwen, this campaign is changing so rapidly, we could do a program every night about what’s going on. It’s remarkable. We know this campaign has been a rollercoaster, but the last seven days have been so evident of that. I mean, a week ago, we were sitting and everybody was wondering, well, what might happen in South Carolina? Gingrich scores a big victory. He goes into Florida with a lot of momentum. He has an okay debate on Monday night. Suddenly, Mitt Romney is on the offensive. And by tonight, we’re at a point where Mitt Romney is really moving in Florida. And Gingrich is kind of back on his heels trying to regain his balance. It’s been an extraordinary week.
MS. IFILL: It’s crazy. Now, Dan just got on a plane and flew back to Washington from Florida, but in Florida for us tonight and for himself and for Slate magazine and CBS, I might add, is John Dickerson. So, John, what is it about Florida where we end up having all these critical moments, political moments in that state?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it’s here we’ve (got it ?). What happened is the race basically on the Republican side came down to a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Now, of course, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum wouldn’t like that characterization. But it’s gotten here to this battle we’ve always seen throughout the Republican race, which is between Romney and the non-Mitt Romney. And, finally, there was a person to fill that slot. And that was Newt Gingrich.
And, as Dan mentioned, what was amazing was that basically they flipped positions. In South Carolina it was Gingrich who was hard charging and Romney who was kind of at sea a little bit now. After two debates, it’s Romney who’s been on the offensive, in Gingrich’s face in these debates in a way we really haven’t seen him before. And Gingrich is the one who’s a little bit lost and at sea.
Now, why does Florida matter? Well, it matters, of course, in the Republican race, but also its 29 electoral votes in the general election. So this is a proving ground that will then become very important whichever of the two men goes up against Barack Obama.
MR. WESSEL: So, Dan, did Romney make a deliberate shift? Was this calculated or did he just sort of wake up one morning and decide to be aggressive?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, he – as Gwen said in the opening – he saw his political life flash before him over the weekend in South Carolina. And they have made a very dramatic and aggressive pivot. I mean, if you think about a week ago, a week ago today, he had not committed to do any debates in Florida. The day of the primary in South Carolina, when it was clear he was going to lose, he said, oh, yes. I’ll be at both of those debates. He had dawdled on releasing his tax returns. The morning after the South Carolina primary, he said, I’m going to release them and I’m going to release them right away, and it was a mistake to have done what I did.
And then, in the debates, he had two mediocre debates in South Carolina, and he came out loaded in Florida in both of those debates. So it was a deliberate recognition that he was in real trouble and if he didn’t begin to step up, he could lose the nomination.
MS. CALMES: Dan, could you explain why it is that the Romney campaign and Mitt Romney himself did not have a better answer, did not plan better for the release of his tax returns, which he knew at some point was going to have to come out? And so what happens is they come out on the very day of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in effect putting a face on President Obama’s argument that had only been abstract up to that point about very wealthy people paying too low of a tax rate?
MR. BALZ: You know, we have said many times that, in general, the Romney campaign has been a pretty smooth operating and well functioning campaign, very disciplined in a lot of ways. This was such a glaring error that it’s almost inexplicable as to what happened. I don’t have a good answer for it other than I have to assume that the candidate himself must have resisted it from the beginning and didn’t want to do it unless it was absolutely necessary. And when it became necessary, he realized he had to do it.
MS. IFILL: Well, John, the other thing that happened this week is it’s clear that Newt Gingrich is trying to pick a fight with the establishment. They decided to bite right back. I want to read to you a little bit about – of a letter that Bob Dole, the ’96 Republican nominee, put out criticizing, I think is a mild way of putting it, Newt Gingrich.
He wrote: “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway. In my opinion, if we want to avoid an Obama landslide in November, Republicans should nominate Governor Romney.” Obama landslide – tough, tough words, and that was just part of what he wrote.
MR. DICKERSON: Right. What’s fascinating here is, first of all, that Newt Gingrich has at some extent or to some level fashioned himself as an outsider. Here’s a man who was speaker of the House, who then after he left government then used his government experience to help companies, to help Freddie Mac, one of the great villains in conservative circles. And, yet, he’s the outsider and the establishment is fighting back against him. He really is a member of the establishment in a sense.
But what Bob Dole did – remember the history here. When Dole was running for president in 1996, it was Newt Gingrich that the Clinton campaign hung around Dole’s neck. Gingrich was unpopular. There were all of those ads where the two of them were in the same frame together. And it was Gingrich’s unpopularity that the Clinton team used to help drag Dole down. Dole is not a fan of Gingrich’s. And so now he comes out here. And he wasn’t the only one – Trent Lott, another majority leader, Senate majority leader, came out and blasted Gingrich. There were a lot of these figures.
And also, by the way, I’ve had conversations with those who are still holding their tongue who think Gingrich would be a disaster not only as a president, but also for other Republicans running in the Senate and the House. They haven’t said anything yet because they just assumed that Gingrich, who has a history of self-destructing, would do that. He hasn’t and perhaps we’ll hear more of these voices.
MR. BALZ: I think the Dole letter is so indicative of kind of the shift among the party elite or the establishment, whatever we want to call it.
MS. IFILL: You mean the panic, don’t you?
MR. BALZ: He endorsed Romney in mid-December and put out an open letter to Iowa voters that was a totally positive letter, all about Romney, never mentioned anybody else. He said, I have friends – I have a number of friends in this race. Since South Carolina, the panic attack has set in and I think that Dole letter symbolizes what has happened.
MR. WESSEL: And how does that play with the Republicans in Florida? Do they like the establishment or are they on Gingrich’s side and want to rebel against him?
MR. BALZ: Well, there’s a tea party element in Florida of some size and significance which we saw play out in the gubernatorial race last year and in backing Marco Rubio, which drove Charlie Crist, the former governor, not just to the sidelines but out of the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: For the Senate. Yes.
MR. BALZ: So there is an element there. And Gingrich has been able to consolidate some of that in Florida. How strong that will be when they vote on Tuesday, we don’t know. But there is still a definite split.
MS. CALMES: Dan, I remember right around Christmastime when Newt Gingrich was coming up in Iowa, the establishment had an earlier sort of pile on – because I wrote about it – and they – it seemed to work because his numbers did plummet. And so it seems like you have this paradox between people in the Republican primary saying they don’t like the establishment. At the same time, when the establishment says these things eventually it adds up to a weight on Newt Gingrich’s shoulders and brings him down. But they thought they drove a stake in his heart and he’s back again. Can they do it?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, a lot of this last year has been – what we’ve focused on is the lack of love for Mitt Romney among a lot of the conservatives in the party. That’s been supplanted at this point by the fear of Newt Gingrich. In Iowa, he was done in by a tremendous volume of negative advertising aired mostly by the super PAC that’s backing Governor Romney. A similar kind of imbalance now exists in Florida. I’ve heard a number of figures about the imbalance. It’s somewhere at least five to one the amount of money that Romney and the super PAC supporting him have spent in Florida compared to what’s there for Gingrich.
MS. IFILL: John, we keep hearing about a path to victory for Rick Santorum. He says he’s not going anywhere. And there were two other men on that stage last night still – Ron Paul, who’s become kind of a jokester in lots of ways, even though he seems to be trying to win in caucus states, and Rick Santorum. Does he have because of the electorate in Florida the way that Dan was just describing – does he have a path?
MR. DICKERSON: Not that goes through Florida or a strong showing in Florida. He might have had a path if Gingrich had completely imploded. But Gingrich is holding on to that challenge to Mitt Romney’s position. And what voters have said is, you know, in various states – in New Hampshire I started to pick this up, and then in South Carolina and now in Florida about Rick Santorum is – he does very well in these debates. He says things that people really feel in their heart as conservatives, but they just don’t see him crossing that threshold to electable, to a person who can actually go up against Barack Obama. And he makes a very strong case for why he is uniquely qualified to do that, particularly on health care. He’s not tainted with having flirted with the individual mandate, as Romney and Gingrich have in their past. But he’s not selling that argument. And in Florida right now, it’s really a Gingrich and Romney race.
MS. IFILL: Is it a Gingrich-Romney race going forward as well, because we have Michigan coming up. We have Nevada coming up. Is it too soon to start behaving as if it’s a two-man race?
MR. BALZ: Well, so much depends on every week’s outcome. I mean, we’ve created how many two-person races in this race with Romney in the one slot and somebody else. I mean, I think John’s right. I think at this point it is Romney and Gingrich. But who knows what might happen if in fact Gingrich does implode and then there’s a question within the Republican Party of do we really want Romney? There’s still a lot of people who are resistant.
MS. IFILL: John, do you agree with that?
MR. DICKERSON: I do. And I just want to give you a little flavor where we are right now, which is that we talk about the reversal of Florida versus South Carolina. Going into the vote in South Carolina, Gingrich had all the momentum. He was the one who had the strong debate performances. The Romney folks now feel like their man has had the strong performances, they’ve got the momentum. And talking to an ally of Gingrich’s, the problem with his debate performances and what’s happened with him now is he needed to continue to build his momentum. And it’s basically stalled.
And so, at this point, with a few days to go before the voting, there’s a lot of feeling inside the Romney camp that they’re going to do very well in Florida, and that sets them up going forward because Romney has the organization and the money to compete in these other states. And Newt Gingrich can’t match that.
MS. IFILL: Well, you know – hold on and stick with us there, John, because we want to talk about something else I’m sure that you’re keeping track of too because there’s this Washington bully pulpit that all these guys are competing for. It turns out somebody’s still in the chair. And President Obama made the most of it this State of the Union week by accentuating the positive.
PRES. OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: The president immediately headed to five battleground states to drive that point home. He was greeted with cheering crowds today at the University of Michigan.
PRES. OBAMA: I want this to be a big, bold, generous country where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share, everybody is playing by the same set of rules. That’s the America I know.
MS. IFILL: Go blue. (Laughter.) But how much of the president’s optimism with cheering crowds around him – Jackie, how much of it is about reality, how much of it is about reelection?
MS. CALMES: Well, it’s 2012, so everything is about reelection. I think the optimism is based on several realities. One is that the economy is getting better, still slow, but there have been some – a string of good data.
The national security card, which Republicans like to play against Democrats, they don’t have it. Between the killing of Osama bin Laden and then this very week another operation by SEAL Team Six to rescue two hostages, including an American aid worker.
And then there’s the politics – he’s giving the State of the Union speech, the ultimate presidential act, as the Republicans are committing fratricide in Florida. And so these things all are giving them a great deal of optimism. The polls are better, not great. But there’s a – go ahead.
MS. IFILL: Except – that’s what I was going to ask David about the reality part of it because there are numbers which do not back up any call for optimism.
MR. WESSEL: Right. So I think it was really interesting that the president using the phrase the state of the union is getting stronger, because the best can they can make is we’ve touched bottom and start to go up. And you can describe this as half full or half empty.
It is true, as the president said, that we’ve created 3.2 million business jobs over the past 22 months. But we are now making as much stuff as we did before the recession began with six million fewer workers. And that’s a point that, of course, Mitch Daniels made in his response. So I think it’s going to be a question of which one do people really believe. Obama will say, it’s not as bad as it was, and he’s right, and the Republicans will say, it’s still awful, and they’re right.
MS. CALMES: When you asked about the reality, I think these are the realities but they know that they’re going to – if he’s going to get reelected, it’s going to be because of perception because the unemployment rate is still going to be high and the question that pollsters love about “is the country on the wrong track or not” is going to be high. And the best thing he can hope for is that there will be improvement and that people will give him credit for putting the country on a path, however slow, and that they will take his vision, as he thinks they will, of the future as opposed to the Republican vision.
MS. IFILL: John, you wanted to get in on this?
MR. DICKERSON: Jackie, I wanted to ask you what about the old fear that the president would look out of touch? Mitt Romney all day long talks about how President Obama just is out of touch with what’s really happening. Isn’t there a risk for the president in suggesting things are getting better, that people will say, you’re crazy? Things aren’t getting better.
MS. CALMES: Yes. There’s a big risk of that. And it’s like David said – he chose his words carefully. And if you go back and look at last year’s State of the Union speech, he was really on thin ice. It was arguably far too bullish of a State of the Union speech because what happened was for the second year in a row, come springtime, these headwinds they like to talk about occurred: the European debt crisis got worse; the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan; and the Middle East was in tumult and it forced oil prices way up. So this administration, this White House has come to fear the spring. So their optimism is tempered by that. And the big wild card is Europe, the European –
MR. WESSEL: Absolutely. And I thought it was really interesting that the same week that the president gives this upbeat speech about the economy and looking forward like the recession’s behind us, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, comes out and gives a press conferences and it’s not nearly as optimistic. The Fed’s forecast is that unemployment is not going to come down at all between now and the end of the year. And the Fed said it’s extraordinary that three years after they’ve kept interest rates at zero they’re now saying the economy is so weak they expect interest rates to be at zero for another three years. So he sounded much less upbeat about the economy than the president did.
MR. BALZ: Jackie, 16 years ago, Bill Clinton was in somewhat of a similar situation. He’d taken a beating in his first midterm election. He came out in ’96 to try to retool and to give his State of the Union in an optimistic way. What’s the parallel with Bill Clinton and President Obama?
MS. CALMES: You know, it’s really interesting because the parallels, like you say, on surface they look very similar. But what President Clinton did – and, granted, the times were different. The economy was improving. We were at peace. He came out and the most memorable line almost of his entire presidency is “the era of big government is over.” What he had done was he was co-opting the Republicans’ small government message.
What President Obama is doing is not trying to co-opt them. He’s going out and aggressively confronting them with a vision of a government that is more communitarian, that we’re all in this together. The government has an essential role in helping businesses and individuals maximize their potential versus the Republican argument that he characterizes as Darwinian, every man for himself.
MS. IFILL: John?
MR. DICKERSON: Jackie, you mentioned co-opting Republican arguments. And I wanted to ask David about manufacturing because Rick Santorum talks a lot about rebuilding manufacturing on the stump and then President Obama in his State of the Union focused it on rebuilding manufacturing. Is that really going to fix this economy? Is that the big panacea that both candidates seem to think it is?
MR. WESSEL: I don’t think it is. I think there’s a lot of romance about manufacturing. There are a lot of good jobs in manufacturing and manufacturing has big benefits. When a plant opens, there’s a lot of spinoffs. It’s true that we’ve created a lot of manufacturing jobs in the last two years. We’ve created 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Two million more and we’re back to where we were before the recession.
Manufacturing is fewer than one in every 10 jobs in the economy. It is not going to put Americans back to work. And I think they’re setting themselves up for disappointment. Everybody is not going to get one of those good, old factory union jobs, but they’ve created this myth almost that that’s going to happen.
MS. IFILL: But, you know, it also seemed to me that they were very anxious at the White House to try to push back at a theme we’re hearing a lot on the campaign trail which is that America is in decline, that things are so much worse, and that, you know, we’re bowing to foreign kings and we are not respected around the world. Is that the way you’re reading it as well?
MR. WESSEL: Absolutely. I think in a way – Jackie mentioned this was Clintonesque, and it was Clintonesque in that long laundry list. You thought, oh, my God, another 15 minutes of more proposals?
MS. IFILL: My favorite is that instead of the school uniforms that Clinton proposed we had bullet proof vests for cops.
MR. WESSEL: Right. Right. On the other hand, there was almost this Reagan optimism about it like we can be great again. And I think he is trying to do two things. He’s trying to make the case that I can lead America to greatness again on the economy and we’ve gotten the bad times that the Republicans bequeathed us behind us. And the second thing – I think Jackie is absolutely right – there was a very strong argument for government that the government has a big role to play in restoring this country to greatness.
MR. BALZ: Jackie, to the degree that there is greater optimism at the White House and at the Obama reelection headquarters in Chicago today than there were six months ago, how much of that has to do with how the president is and has performed and how much of that has to do with what they are seeing as they watch this Republican race unfold?
MS. CALMES: Well, I’m sure they would like to say it’s what the president’s done that gives some ground for optimism. But, in truth, a big share of it it’s the Republicans because what happens is they’ve always said, you know, his numbers may be down in the polls, he doesn’t get 50 percent in his job approval rating, but it wasn’t going to be a referendum on him. It was going to be a choice. So you see now that these Republicans have campaigned and the presidential race is playing out in a way far more negative than the White House could have hoped in its wildest dreams.
And you see in the polls, the Wall Street Journal poll today, that when the president is – when you’re asked if the president should be reelected, it’s a smaller margin than it is when you put his name up against Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Santorum. And it’s 18 points difference between him and Newt Gingrich.
MS. IFILL: Final thought, David.
MR. WESSEL: I think that a lot depends on whether the economy continues the momentum. The president’s case falls apart if the economy slows down in the spring like it did last year. And a lot of that is beyond his control. It has to do with whether Europe gets its act together or not.
MS. IFILL: But meanwhile I’ve been very interested to see that they never take their eye off Mitt Romney, even when Newt was surging and all these other things.
MS. CALMES: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: And that’s another topic for another day because we’re going to have to move on. John Dickerson in Miami, thank you so much for joining us. You know, stay out of the sun, okay? (Laughter.)
So much news, so little time, but the conversation will continue online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find it at pbs.org/washingtonweek. And you can keep up with daily developments in the nation and the world on air and online at the PBS “NewsHour.”
We’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.