MS. IFILL: Good economic news as for a change as the Republican struggling campaign moves to Nevada, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning, we received more good news about our economy.

MS. IFILL: The unemployment rate heads down. And the president’s message to Congress –

PRES. OBAMA: Do not slow down the recovery that we’re on. Don’t muck it up. Keep it moving in the right direction.

MS. IFILL: It’s a split-screen debate. In Nevada, with its sky high jobless rate and underwater mortgages, Mitt Romney’s got the frontrunner’s blues.

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.

MS. IFILL: But his competitors pounced.

FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): What country does he live in?

FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): My goal is not to ignore or forget the poor. My goal is to turn the safety net into a trampoline to allow the poor to rise and be like the rest of us and have a job and buy a house.

MR. ROMNEY: It was a misstatement. I misspoke.

MS. IFILL: Yet, Romney has the money and, for now, the momentum to fight back.

Covering the week, Jim Tankersley of “National Journal,” Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times.”

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. On the campaign trail this week, Republican candidates were looking for a way forward. Here in Washington, the president was, too. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics handed him the best news he’s had in months, 243,000 new jobs in January, 16 months of job growth, five straight months of unemployment decline. You could almost hear the sigh of relief coming from the Obama White House.

PRES. OBAMA: Altogether, we’ve added 3.7 million new jobs over the last 23 months. Now, these numbers will go up and down in the coming months. And there’re still far too many Americans who need a job or need a job that pays better than the one they have now. But the economy is growing stronger.

MS. IFILL: So let’s start there. The president said that at the State of the Union. He said it again today. Things are getting stronger. Is it as rosy as it looks?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well, let’s start, Gwen, by saying the good news. Unemployment’s down to 8.3 percent, and we’re adding a lot of private sector jobs in areas where the underlying data are very good. Manufacturing looks very good and the job growth is very good. Services look very good and the job growth is good. This is all really good news. Now, the bad news, 12.8 million Americans still looking for a job, they can’t find one. And the economy’s still very vulnerable to outside shocks and – what do you know – there are a bunch of threats looming on the horizon in Europe, in our housing market, and maybe most insidiously of all, in the U.S. Congress.

MS. IFILL: But is – is it that – are the trend lines correct because that seems to be what most economists look at, rather than – and in fact, that’s what the administration always warns us, not to look at the numbers from month to month to month, but the trend.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: The trend’s really good. We’ve gained two million jobs about in the last 12 months. It’s been uneven. We do better and worse. Last year, of course, we saw this sort of acceleration, again, at the beginning of last year, but it was thrown off a bit by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan by gas price spikes and by Europe, but we’ve seen steady improvement. And I think the trajectory is that we’ll see more steady improvement in the months to come.

MR. HARWOOD: Jim, one of the things that we’ve heard people talk about is you can’t have a really robust recovery in this economy until something improves in the housing market. So many people are underwater in their mortgages. That has a depressing effect on consumer spending, that sort of thing. So do these numbers suggest that actually we can recover without housing coming back and what sort of a drag does that pose on where we go from here?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well, I think that the right way to look at that is that, John, that the recovery would be a lot faster if housing were a lot of better. Housing remains one of the areas where the data are really bad and where it still looks like we’re on a downward slope for a while. If that were to clear and people would start to feel a rise in their housing wealth again, we could see a lot more consumer spending, a much faster recovery and a lot more job growth.

MS. TUMULTY: You know, out on the campaign trail, it almost sounded as though the Republican candidates were looking for the cloud to go with the silver lining. And there was a lot of talk about the Congressional Budget Office’s pessimistic report that suggested that in fact unemployment’s going to go back up again later this year. How do you square these two sets of data?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well, I think it’s actually really interesting and good to think about what the CBO was saying. The CBO projects – they actually take the law at its word, and the CBO is projecting that, look, the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The payroll tax cut is set to expire any day now, it feels like. If those things happen and these budget cuts kick in from the deficit reduction measures that were passed last year as part of the debt ceiling bill, that’s going to be a huge drag on the economy. And so if taxes go up and spending goes down, we could cut all the momentum out of this and, yes, unemployment could go right back up.

MR. HARWOOD: But better for the deficit.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: But better for the deficit. Well, presuming that growth doesn’t crash so much that it then opens up more of a deficit.

MR. MCMANUS: So I presume that’s what the president meant and you meant when you mentioned Congress as being a big factor here in whether this goes ahead. Does Congress agree?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well, I mean, let’s say – (laughter) – I think Congress would say that the president –

MS. IFILL: Good question.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Yes, great question, Doyle. Congress would say that there’s – absolutely the president has something to do with this, and they’re right. What Congress and the president need to agree on is how to extend this payroll tax cut. That’s job number one. If they can’t do that and payroll taxes go up by a couple of percentage points on working Americans –almost all Americans who work pay that tax – then you are going to see an immediate drag. I compared it today to like pulling the e-brake on a car just as it hits highway cruising speed. So they need to get their sort of heads together and figure out a way to agree on how to extend that cut.

MS. IFILL: Now, we know that if you’re a leader, you get credit for the good stuff and you get the blame for the bad stuff. That’s the deal, right? So – but in this case, can a president, can any administration really claim credit for job creation, something like this?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well, I mean, if I were this administration, and I don’t think – I think that they sort of agree on this, I wouldn’t be sounding the trumpet about this recovery all that much. Yes. That said, they have done some things here that have proved very good. One is that they kept taxes low. And that’s in part by extending the Bush tax cuts, but it’s also by cutting the payroll tax. The other thing is, is that they have done a very good job of keeping the focus on jobs over the last few months and not moving directly to deficit reduction, which is a very important medium and long-term concern. But if we went into a huge austerity spiral right now, with a lot of budget cuts, and with some tax increases, then you could see growth just flat-line.

MS. IFILL: Speaking of Europe austerity –

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Right, yes, absolutely.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well let’s talk about how those Republicans responded to this today because they had the same general response to the economic news, that it’s not good enough.

MR. ROMNEY: I know the president didn’t cause this downturn, this recession, but he didn’t make it better, either. He made it worse.

MS. IFILL: Romney, who won big in Florida this week, still seemed to have some trouble getting his footing on the campaign trail. And many of his wounds seem to be self-inflicted. Isn’t that about right, Karen?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, the reason he couldn’t get his footing was that it was in his mouth. He – the morning after his victory in Florida – and it was a big victory. It was almost a mirror image of South Carolina. He won across the board, except for the very most conservative voters. He won huge margins among women. So this should have been a moment of celebration and sort of laying the premise for going forward, but instead, in an interview on CNN, Mitt Romney had another one of these gaffes. And these all seem to sort of play into the stereotype, this one being he was trying to explain that he is intensely focused on the middle class, but he said I’m not concerned about the very poor, the full context being because they have a safety net. Some people would argue about that, especially given the greater numbers of the poor these days.

MS. IFILL: People on both sides would argue about that actually.

MS. TUMULTY: But you know, it is becoming troubling for Republicans because this is now becoming part of the narrative about Mitt Romney, whether it’s him offering to bet $10,000 to Rick Perry in the middle of a debate or him joking about being unemployed, or saying that he’d been – he’d been worried about getting a pink slip at some point in his life, his problems with not releasing his tax returns. All this stuff is building into a stereotype, but a narrative as well.

MS. IFILL: And if you’re Newt Gingrich, even though you’ve been talking about the food stamp president for some time, you’re now suddenly defending the poor. You’re jumping on this. And he isn’t going anywhere. In fact, he says he’s in the race all the way to the convention. His plan seems to be to persuade voters that Mitt Romney is just like Barack Obama.

MR. GINGRICH: It isn’t good enough for the Republican Party to nominate Obama light. (Applause.) We – now, let me tell you want the difference is. If you’re a genuine conservative, first of all, you don’t say that you don’t care about the poor.

MS. IFILL: It seemed like there were three different messages there – the genuine conservative, Obama light, and I’m still here.

MR. MCMANUS: Yes. And if you wanted to pick the key one out of that, it’s not the word poor. It’s not even Obama light. It’s genuine conservative. That is the pitch that Newt Gingrich is desperately trying to make to that Republican electorate. He says he’s going to do it through a campaign of positive ideas, but somehow it doesn’t sound like it because we keep hearing things like Obama light. The other line he threw at Mitt Romney this week was, well, if Barack Obama is big food stamp, Mitt Romney is little food stamp. So this food fight is going to keep going for a while.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Karen, I want to get back to the issue of the very poor and Mitt Romney. It seems like his campaign was in a lot of damage control mode over that, but one of the first things he did after that foot-in-mouth moment was to stand up on a stage with Donald Trump. So can you explain that to me?

MS. TUMULTY: I can’t. It was really a remarkable – now, mind you, a few weeks, when he was endorsed by Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney did not accept the endorsement on the same stage with Jon Huntsman, but yet there was this hastily arranged news conference. And this is – one of his gaffes a few weeks ago was saying I like to fire people. So standing on a stage with somebody whose catch line is “you’re fired” might not necessarily be a move that makes a lot of sense politically. In fact, there’s polling that suggests that swing voters in particular say Donald Trump’s endorsement is a turnoff.

MR. HARWOOD: I wonder – to go back to the very poor and where that goes in the rest of the campaign because it struck me as one of those moments that was not a gaffe. It was Mitt Romney saying what he intended to say.

MS. IFILL: And has said before –

MR. HARWOOD: Yes. And repeated when he was challenged on it. Presidential candidates in both parties don’t want to talk about the very poor. But if you’re Barack Obama, you have a set of policies, as he has, which quietly are targeted toward many of the poor. His health care plan added millions of people to Medicaid. Mitt Romney does not have that. He’s not – he’s not seeking to strengthen the safety net. He’s looking, at least in terms of what he’s proposed so far, to end the Medicaid entitlements. So I wonder to what degree do you think he can put this behind him by saying misstatement, or do you think he’s actually revealed something about himself that the Democrats and Obama can really take advantage of, if not Newt Gingrich?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, I do think that at a time where everyone’s – particularly swing voters’ main focus is cutting the deficit, I think that people are going to be looking for fiscal austerity. And so it’s really hard to talk about expanding social programs. But if you look at Mitt Romney’s economic plan, there really isn’t a lot in there. I mean, it’s a lot of tax cuts, for instance, people who – people who make under $200,000 would not have to pay capital gains taxes. Well, they don’t pay very much in capital gains taxes as it is. So there –I think this is something that the Obama campaign – this will not be the last you hear of that line.

MR. MCMANUS: Let me ask a variation of the same question. You know, a lot of those gaffes were out before Florida, and Mitt Romney did just fine in Florida. Is it the case that some of this rich-guy image doesn’t really hurt him all that much in the Republican primary, but is building up negatives for the general?

MS. TUMULTY: I think that is also exactly right. In fact, when Newt Gingrich attempted to go after Mitt Romney on Bain Capital, and Rick Perry did as well, talking about it as vulture capitalism, it backfired on both of them because it was seen as an attack from within the Republican Party on capitalism.

MS. IFILL: You know, but I – but I’m very curious about Newt Gingrich’s continued survival in this. He is not going – I think we can safely say – going to win tomorrow in Nevada. There’s not a poll anywhere that shows he has a shot. So – but he seems to think there is a path that exists. And maybe this genuine conservative thing you mentioned is part of what he sees, but share with us what that is.

MR. MCMANUS: What is the path? Well, it’s kind of hard to figure out exactly what it is and I’ve been talking to the Gingrich campaign to get a clear sense of the strategy. It’s really kind of out there on a wing and a prayer. It’s – one part of it is continuing to make this genuine conservative appeal, hoping that Mitt Romney hits a brick wall somewhere that we can’t see yet.

MR. HARWOOD: And you do have some southern states coming up where the ideology plays a bigger role.

MR. MCMANUS: You do have that, but it takes a long time to get there. Exactly. So I mean the short term here, John, actually is just to survive, to get to Super Tuesday, on March 6, which is where those – those southern states are there. Newt Gingrich has a good shot – should win Georgia on that day. Has a shot in Alaska, has a shot in Ohio. The Gingrich campaign has got its own internal problems. He’s not on the ballot in Virginia, where he ought to be. He doesn’t have a full slate in Tennessee. It’s really hard to see how –

MR. HARWOOD: This disappointment with the governor in Nevada.

MS. TUMULTY: And isn’t – isn’t there also a problem in that there’s so little going on over the next month. He’s deprived of oxygen. There’re no debates. It’s going to be difficult to raise money as well.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, that’s right. They claim they’re not having difficulty raising money, but –

MS. IFILL: But – but he seems to have a plan which involves Rick Santorum, certainly handing all of his support, such as it is –

MR. MCMANUS: The hope is that at some point, yes, Rick Santorum runs out of gas –

MS. IFILL: Not that Santorum seems to have signed on to this –

MR. MCMANUS: Which Santorum doesn’t agree to at all. And that all of those Santorum supporters or that most of them will come to Gingrich.

Now, if you look at the polls, when people are given a second choice, Santorum supporters tend to split down the middle, actually. Some of them do go to Mitt Romney. The Gingrich campaign hopes that by hammering away at Romney, actually, that would be what they call a dynamic process that more and more will end up with Gingrich. And then finally, there this interesting sort of double reverse that Gingrich himself talked about in Florida. He said he doesn’t even have to get to the convention with a majority of delegates, as long as he can deny Mitt Romney a majority, then maybe you get, believe it or not, an actual wide open convention.

MR. HARWOOD: So is that their answer to the results, say in Florida, where Romney actually exceeded the combined vote of Gingrich and Santorum? You could say, then, well you have Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul, and he is under 50, and therefore we can extend this.

MR. MCMANUS: In that sense, weirdly enough, there’s an argument that maybe Gingrich wants Santorum to stay in, wants Ron Paul to do well.

MS. IFILL: And another odd-fellow moment, in the poster about this, this week, is Romney and Paul. It seems that they’re being awfully nice to each other when Gingrich and – was jumping all down Romney’s throat about his comments about the poor, and Santorum was – you heard Paul saying I think he was just taken out of context.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, my colleague Amy Gardner had a great story on this subject. There’s a couple of things going on. One is that these two guys like each other. But the other thing is that Mitt Romney realizes that he needs the energy and the enthusiasm that nobody like Ron Paul can generate. I mean, he’s got a – he’s got his own contention. And they are going to be there until the end. So he really does need Ron Paul sort of on board with whatever happens in the end.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: When is the end going to be – how far does this go?

MS. IFILL: When is the end going to be?

MR. TANKERSKLEY: When does it go to the – does it go all the way to the convention like we almost did with the Democrats in ’08?

MR. MCMANUS: Well, Newt Gingrich says it goes to the convention and there’s really no reason for him to drop out yet. He’s 68 years old. He’s not angling for a job in the Romney administration. There’s no love lost there. But the real question is does he run out of money? Does Rick Santorum run out of money?

MR. HARWOOD: There will be a convention. He will be there. I will believe that there’s a competition at the convention when I see it. I haven’t see it –

MS. IFILL: Well, it’ll be a competition, just not a competition of who the nominee is supposed to be. Perhaps. We’ll see. We don’t want to predict anything.

So let’s talk about money. Folks running for president have hauled in tons of it so far, often without lifting a single finger. Thirty million dollars for Mitt Romney and that’s what his Super PAC raked in and spent on a brutal advertising campaign that crushed Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida, but not in South Carolina. Romney, of course, is not alone in this uncoordinated spending. They’ve all got them, but has it changed the face of the campaign, John?

MR. HARWOOD: I think it has. I think it has changed the velocity at which people can get competitive because you can get a huge check from somebody overnight. And it’s changed the ways in which campaigns are run because, you know, the Super PAC for Mitt Romney spent more money than Mitt Romney did in television advertising in some of the early states with a very clear effect. The $17 million or so in negative ads rained down on Newt Gingrich’s head, clearly caused him to go down in Iowa, in New Hampshire. Then he got his patrons, a wealthy couple in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson, his wife Miriam, each to write a $5 million check. Boom, he’s competitive. He comes back –

MS. IFILL: Except – he’s competitive, but he’s, for instance, not on the air in Nevada, or someone like Rick Perry had a lot of money from Super PACs. He’s no longer in the race.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, it’s a relative term.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. HARWOOD: It’s from one guy having all the money and you having none to all of a sudden you have some, but he can’t match the Romney forces. But the point is that we’ve always had big money in politics. We’ve always had people getting around the rules and before there were Super PACs, there were 527 organizations that we saw in past nomination campaigns, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and other groups like that, but it has become so much easier to do it rapidly. And so for Newt Gingrich, for example, one of the operative questions for him is can he persuade a single person or a handful of other people to step up and write these big checks? If he can, that’s the fuel. But if he can’t, then you’ve got this, you know, big machine that the normal frontrunner, Mitt Romney, through both the individual limited contributions that he takes in, and the large unlimited ones, has got a real machine. And of course the biggest machine of all is going to be headed by Barack Obama, who has raised much more money than anybody else.

MS. TUMULTY: But with the Super PACs, the candidate technically does not have control of the message, which is one reason the Super PACs can say all these horrible things and the candidate can – is there any – even Mitt Romney has said that he doesn’t feel comfortable with this kind of system. Is there any chance that it’s going to be changed?

MR. HARWOOD: I think that’s very doubtful. There was such a fight, as you know and covered with me, the McCain-Feingold. They finally got it through. The Supreme Court decision basically blew that out of the water and opened things up for these unlimited donations. I suppose if we get to the end of 2012, you could have some push in the reform community to change it. But I think that many members of Congress will see that as a fight for which there’s no reward at the end of the game. So I just wouldn’t have a high level of expectation there.

MR. MCMANUS: John, as Karen mentioned, a lot of this money has gone into negative advertising. Is that a direct result of it being sort of fenced off to the side, ostensibly deniable, and –

MR. HARWOOD: I think so. And it goes to Karen’s point about coordination. On the one hand, there is open and implicit coordination. Campaign does positive. Super PAC does negatives. On the other hand, if you’re somebody who’s concerned about the impact of money in politics, you don’t want it to rule everything, you can at least take some solace that there might be some incompetence there in terms of the way that the two sides interact with one another. And maybe the Super PAC does something that is counterproductive for their own side.

But remember, like in the case of the Romney Super PAC, these are very experienced political allies of Mitt Romney. They know what they’re doing. They know what Mitt Romney’s strengths and weaknesses are. They’re people who’ve been intimately connected with his career. So I’m not sure the coordination issue matters all that much. And if you’re looking at one positive thing in the general election – general election in presidential politics is where money matters least, because you have two nominees, tremendous amount of coverage, universal knowledge about who the candidates are, and yes, it can make a difference in targeted states, but there’s also a saturation point that gets reached. It’s not like a primary, where you can come in and buy a state so heavily and take voters who are quite impressionable and undecided and really move them, not as easy to do it in general.

MR. TANKERSKLEY: Well and yet in 2008, Barack Obama’s fundraising prowls, particularly on the internet, really seemed to change the game and gave him the ability to compete in a bunch of states like Indiana that nobody thought he’d had a chance in, and then he ended up winning. How is this changing the game then for an Obama reelect? Does he not have that advantage now?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think he doesn’t have the advantages he had in 2008 for different reasons. He doesn’t have the same electricity as a candidate. He’s got a record to be saddled with, but Barack Obama still does have an ability unmatched in this race to mobilize grassroots and raise money. And you look at the numbers. He raised $125 million in 2011.

MS. IFILL: Okay and one of the great questions that Republicans keep bringing up is whether they’re going to be running against a billion-dollar candidate. Democrats say no.

MR. HARWOOD: He’s not going to have a billion dollars.

MS. IFILL: Okay, we’ll be watching all of it. Thank you, everyone. By the time we see you here next week, we’ll have caucus results from Nevada, Colorado, and Minnesota, but what are the voters thinking? We asked students at the University of Nevada, Reno. Richard Corn (sp) is student government vice president.

RICHARD CORN: Where the nation goes economically, assuming that Nevada will follow, sure we do have a unique standing with mining and sort of an inverse economy in some counties, but there does need to be that conservative shift toward less spending and more balanced budget, more really accountability for what the government is doing.

MS. IFILL: You can find the rest of our student voices feature on our website, at Then, keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you again next week on “Washington Week.” As the late Don Cornelius would say, wishing you love, peace, and soul. Goodnight.