MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney wins six states and still it’s not over. Gas prices, unemployment, the prospect of war – who wins those arguments? Tonight, on “Washington Week.”

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I’m not going to let you down. I’m going to get this nomination.

MS. IFILL: But he’s got a few hurdles to leap first. There is Rick Santorum.

FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: If you go out and deliver a conservative victory for us on Tuesday, this race will become a two-person race.

MS. IFILL: There’s Newt Gingrich.

FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I’m the tortoise. I just take one step at a time.

MS. IFILL: And there’s Ron Paul.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I think we have a little bit of time left before you declare anybody a winner.

MS. IFILL: So the race moves south.

MR. ROMNEY: Good morning y’all. I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits.

MS. IFILL: And at least when it comes to politics, the president gets another pass.

WOMAN [Reporter]: What would you like to say to Mr. Romney?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good luck tonight. (Laughter.)

MAN [Reporter]: No, really.

PRES. OBAMA: Really.

MS. IFILL: But the challenges don’t go away. Covering the week in politics and policy, Beth Reinhard of National Journal; Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; and Jeff Zeleny of 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.

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

MS. IFILL: Good evening. In many ways, Mitt Romney won the week. In many other ways, he can’t seem to catch a break. Rivals have stopped conceding and Republican voters still seem to have trouble warming to him, even when they say they assume he’ll be the nominee. Tonight, we examine the frontrunner’s dilemma, the challenger’s map, and the incumbent’s role, starting with Governor Romney who, as Jeff Zeleny wrote this week, won the delegates but not necessarily the argument.

MR. ROMNEY: Tonight we’re doing some counting. We’re counting up the delegates for the convention and it looks good. And we’re counting down the days until November and that looks even better.

MS. IFILL: The Associated Press puts the delegate tally at Romney with 421, Rick Santorum with 181, Newt Gingrich with 107, and Ron Paul with 47. But the numbers don’t quite tell the story, do they, Jeff?

MR. ZELENY: They don’t. I mean, one upon a time they would have because usually at this point in this cycle, if you’re losing, you concede. But a variety of factors this year are making it different. One, Super PACs are playing a big influence. One individual can individually write a check to someone and keep them afloat, which is one of the reasons that Newt Gingrich is still in the race. And Rick Santorum has really found a core of voters out there who are drawn to his message, all of which is complicating things for Mitt Romney.

So Mitt Romney definitely – I mean, his week was good. He won six out of 10 contests, like you said. But he has sort of been mired in this process talk. The nuts and bolts of how he’s going to win the nomination as opposed to the inspiring talk for why he should win the nomination. So his team is trying to elevate him and sort of lift him up a little bit, but he’s having a hard time doing that because the next few weeks he is probably not going to have a good, easy, smooth road here.

MS. IFILL: Well, I love the cover of National Journal this week, Beth, because it kind of also proved his dilemma, which is it’s not completely his fault. There are rules which were put in place which guaranteed this thing would go on for a while.

MS. REINHARD: Right. The Republican Party changed the way they pick their nominees and in ways I don’t know that anyone could have predicted, they’ve sort of – these new rules have kind of conspired against Governor Romney. They’ve really slowed the process down. We have fewer states voting at the very beginning of the primary season. So it makes it harder for a candidate to accumulate a lot of delegates quickly, which is the pattern that –

MS. IFILL: Isn’t that the point, to stretch this thing out?

MS. REINHARD: That was exactly the point. Be careful what you wish for. So they did get that. But the problem with the chemistry of this race is that Governor Romney’ rivals are perceived as weak. And so, as it stretches on, it makes him look like someone who can’t quite close the deal.

MS. IFILL: But isn’t it true, when you look at these – Doyle, when you look at these exit polls and you look at what the voters are saying about – what they feel about these candidates, isn’t it possible that some of the problem is Mitt Romney’s and that he can’t close the deal because there’s something about him that isn’t connecting?

MR. MCMANUS: Sure. There are very few states where Mitt Romney has actually won more than 50 percent of the vote. There are actually only a few states where he’s won close to 50 percent of the vote. You can go out and poll among Republicans nationwide and there are an awful lot of Republicans – he still has a very hard time collecting votes from Republicans who describe themselves as very conservative or somewhat conservative. He does well among moderates and liberals, but if you’re running as a Republican, that’s not really the base of the party. So he’s got to find a way to close that deal.

What he has tried to do until now has been to compete with his rivals and say, I’m every bit as conservative as they are, but an awful lot of those voters in the base just don’t buy it.

MS. IFILL: How much of this, Jeff, is a problem with this party and this potential nominee? And how much has this happened – did this happen last time, for instance, when the Democrats were still – certainly they were still fighting at this time four years ago?

MR. ZELENY: No question they were fighting at this time and for the next three months to come. But one of the other differences here is a lot of states across the country were having budget shortfalls, so they decided to not have presidential primaries early in the cycle. Like California last time, four years ago was part of Super Tuesday.

MS. IFILL: That’s right.

MR. ZELENY: But this year, they said, we’re going to have ours in June, the same with New Jersey and New York. So the reason that Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich are still seeing sort of a glimmer of hope, even though mathematically it’s possible, but they would really have to win by huge margins. All of these big prizes are still at the end of the rainbow here. You have Texas. You have New York, California, New Jersey. And these are huge delegate states. It’s not Romney’s fault necessarily, but his people thought he could have closed this down. I think Super PACs at the end of the day are going to be the biggest sort of influencer of all this.

MS. IFILL: Is there – you know, it’s interesting because there is an argument that Mitt Romney is actually helped by this. You’re made a stronger candidate when you’ve been challenged along the way. But is there any way to measure whether he’s also been hurt by it?

MS. REINHARD: Well, sure. I mean, you look at the polls now and they’re telling us that he is being hurt, particularly among independents which – the group that he’s going to need the most if he’s the nominee to beat President Obama. Now, as we know, polls can change very quickly and they’ve proved to be extremely volatile this year. I mean, we’ve had I think seven – six or seven different frontrunners besides Mitt Romney. So a lot of Republicans I’ve talked to say, you know, they’re very confident that once Governor Romney – when and if he becomes a nominee that he will be able to improve those favorability numbers, as they say.

MS. IFILL: Doyle, there are two choices for Governor Romney at this stage, which he ignores his continuing rivals, his surviving challengers, or he confronts them.

MR. MCMANUS: And part of the problem with the Romney campaign is that he appears to be doing both.


MR. MCMANUS: You know, one of the raps against Mitt Romney at this point is that he’s looked at the numbers, as we all have, and the logic of the numbers is he should be able, you know, plodding along to collect delegate after delegate and get there. And yes, he should. But that’s led him to this very cautious managerial strategy and a lot of Republican strategists are now saying, you know, he needs to do something bold. He needs to look like a leader.

He missed a chance on that whole Rush Limbaugh episode for – Sister Souljah moment to break from the pack. Well, if you look at what Mitt Romney is doing now, he’s doing a little bit of both. When he’s on the trail, he aims most of his rhetoric at President Obama and that same kind of bland national anthem patriotic hymn way, but his Super PAC is still trying to tear a strip off Santorum and Gingrich.

MS. IFILL: Which is what he’s been doing all along. We’ll see if it maybe begins to work a little bit better. Let’s talk about Santorum and Gingrich, the challengers. If you listen to Santorum and Gingrich and Paul, you might be persuaded that each man has devised a secret path to the nomination that we can’t quite see. Santorum campaigning Wednesday in Mississippi even suggested Romney should be the one to drop out.

MR. SANTORUM: I’m not saying I don’t want him to get out. If he wants to get out, I’m all for him getting out. But I’m all for Mitt Romney getting – I’m for everybody getting – I wish President Obama would just hand me the thing.

MS. IFILL: Romney political director Rich Beeson sees it differently. Super Tuesday dramatically reduced the likelihood, he wrote, that any of Governor Romney’s opponents can obtain the Republican nomination. This was a strategy memo. As Governor Romney’s opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, he said, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama’s. So what does each – what do each of Romney’s rivals have planned, Beth, as they make their way through this?

MS. REINHARD: Right. Well, you know, it’s interesting that Romney was making that case, I thought, as he is in between – we just had Super Tuesday, where he did win the majority of the contests but he also lost a few. And he’s now facing possibly a run of three states that he may lose all three. So I thought it was the timing of him making the case that everyone should just pack it in, well, these other guys are winning. Why should they pack it up?

MS. IFILL: Well, that’s it. They’ve got three states, one in the west, Kansas, two in the south. What does he do with that? Is it worth staying alive because you can win in the south?

MR. ZELENY: Sure it’s worth staying alive. I mean, he’s getting a lot of votes out there. I mean, Rick Santorum was really tapping into something in Ohio. I was out there last week talking to voters, seeing things. He is being outspent dramatically by the Romney campaign and the Super PAC. And he’s still doing pretty well. He was only 12,000 votes shy out of 1.2 million votes cast in Ohio. So why not stay in if you’re Rick Santorum?

I think one of the reasons is – and we saw in the video just a second ago. He has a sense of humor. He is – when he’s talking about the economy and not sort of diverting into some side issues, he really sort of – he’s tapping into things. And this is not the Republican Party that Mitt Romney was running in four years ago or that John McCain was running in four years ago. It’s more of the 2010 Republican Party. So for reasons like that, he thinks he should stay in.

The same with Newt Gingrich – people still are coming out to see him, although it’s unclear if they’re coming out to see him as a presidential candidate or sort of more as a speaker, a historic figure. He was even talking in past tense this week. A colleague of mine out on the trail heard that. He said, one of the reasons I ran was – so watch him this week.

MR. MCMANUS: The other factor for all of these candidates is how do they want their reputation to come out of this race. Rick Santorum is only 53 years old. He can run next time and he made a reference on Super Tuesday to winning a lot of silver medals. Well, if he wins the silver medal in the end – but that means going all the way and coming in second, he’s in pretty good shape four years from now. Newt Gingrich is, as Jeff says, a bit of a mystery. If Newt Gingrich wins in Alabama and/or Mississippi, well, then his ego probably keeps him there. He can probably then say, I, Newt, am the conservative alternative, not Rick Santorum.

MS. IFILL: Aren’t they splitting the base? I mean, is there any truth to theory that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been advancing, which is if the other guy drops out, I can beat Romney. Is there anything to that?

MR. MCMANUS: There is some but not entirely. If you really crunch the numbers in the polls, not all of those numbers would go from one to the other. About a quarter of those numbers, let’s say Gingrich dropped out, yes, Rick Santorum would probably pick up about half of the numbers and the others would go too. There’s actually an argument that if both Santorum and Gingrich stay in, that reduces Mitt Romney’s chance of winning a majority and increases the chance for an open convention.

MS. IFILL: An open convention – the thing we keep talking about, which never happens. Let me ask you about this, Beth, because the money thing that Jeff was alluding to, neither of these candidates would be alive if it weren’t for the Super PACs. So how is that playing out at this stage or is this just gravy for them?

MS. REINHARD: I mean, Super PACs benefiting Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich I think have spent about roughly the same as the campaigns themselves. I mean, this was a scenario that no one envisioned a few years ago. And, you know, the pattern has been the candidates who were running kind of the shoe-string campaigns at this point, you know, fall to the wayside. But, right, these Super PACs can keep them going. And they don’t really even need that much money. They need to get on a plane and they have very – you know, barebones campaign operations, nothing like what Governor Romney has around the country.

MS. IFILL: But is there pressure being applied? I mean, are party leaders – if there are party elders anymore, are they sitting in Washington and saying, oh, my goodness, they’re ruining everything for us for the fall?

MR. ZELENY: Some of them are certainly, but Governor Romney also does not have a big reservoir of support here in Washington or really among Republican Party leaders across the country. Governor Haley Barbour, of former Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi was in Washington and he said today, gosh, Rick Santorum sure is an impressive candidate. So you have some –

MS. IFILL: He did?

MR. ZELENY: Yes, he did. And he’s the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. So you don’t see a lot of trying to tip the scales, I think probably because it wouldn’t work. I mean, this is not an electorate that is going to be sort of told to fall in line, but at some point that might happen. But the question is who does it. Who tells Newt Gingrich to do anything? It’s certainly not going to be the chairman of the RNC or some state party chairman.

MS. IFILL: Beth?

MS. REINHARD: Yes. I was going to say, I mean, I think in 2010 we saw that the grassroots really react very badly when Republican Party, national Republican Party apparatus tells them who to vote for. You saw that in the Florida Senate race.

MS. IFILL: That’s right.

MS. REINHARD: Where the governor, Charlie Crist, was very popular at the time, got an early – unusually early endorsement from the party and that turned out to be the bane of his existence. And so now people want to be seen as the man of the people, the person with the grassroots, not so much the establishment guy.

MS. IFILL: And maybe it’s not about winning but it’s about actually denying Romney a clean chance shot at the nomination come this summer, which we’ll be watching. So there’s somebody else in this race and that’s the incumbent. The jobs numbers remain stable. The stock market dipped this week, but came back. And the administration seems to have lessened, for now at least, the likelihood that Israel will soon confront Iran over its nuclear program. One of the most relentless critics on that front has been Romney, who returned to the subject again today.

MR. ROMNEY: He seems more concerned with the idea that Israel might take action against Iran than he is that Iran might have a nuclear weapon. We should station at least two aircraft carriers, one in the Mediterranean, one in the Gulf, and substantial military resources to let them know we are there. We are at their doorstep. If they continue to go down this way, they will face extraordinary peril.

MS. IFILL: The president in a Super Tuesday news conference dismissed that criticism.

PRES. OBAMA: What’s said on the campaign trail – those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They’re not commander in chief. Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so.

MS. IFILL: Some of these folks – the political battle lines, Doyle, at least are clear.

MR. MCMANUS: Some of these folks – you know, that actually turned into – that pressure on President Obama to be tougher on Iran turned into a remarkable opportunity for him to play the role of statesman, commander-in-chief, president, cautious, prudent man. It also incidentally gave him a chance for a nice bank shot at Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. President Obama was lucky he was asked that question about the Republican candidates because he could give it that tough swing. But those words also applied to the pressure he’d been getting from Netanyahu.

MS. IFILL: How much of this is a problem for the president when he is trying to position himself as commander-in-chief? And Israel, the great ally, staunch ally becomes potentially a problem and the Republicans are all over it?

MR. ZELENY: It’s a problem in the sense that he has less control over this than he would like. I mean, anytime you’re the incumbent, they can control a lot in terms of what their apparatus is going to look like. But he has not a ton of control over this.

But I think Doyle is absolutely right. At that moment, the juxtaposition between commander and chief and these guys out running around, it was something of a gift I think for President Obama. But it’s not all that long ago when he was the one who was running for president, I thought his word, these candidates have no responsibility – he probably wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination had he not been campaign hard against the Iraq war, and things change.

But I think overall the biggest worry for his advisors, the White House and the campaign are high gas prices which are tangentially related here if there’s some type of an episode in the Middle East. So I think all the uncertainty is their biggest concern here.

MS. IFILL: Beth, this is an interesting point because on the one hand, he has the advantage of job numbers today, which are pretty good. The unemployment rate did not go down but jobs more north of 225,000 were added. That’s good news. But these gas prices – and it’s something Newt Gingrich has figured out. He can talk about it every day. How dangerous – how much do these two things offset each other?

MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, I see energy policy as perhaps the Republican Party’s biggest opening because they make this argument that it sounds like it makes sense, that if we were doing more, if we were drilling more, people understand the laws of supply and demand, that gas prices would go down. And there’s a perception that this administration is not doing that, which isn’t necessarily true. They’re actually – domestic production I believe is pretty high right now. And actually the cost of gas is more controlled by things way outside of the president’s control on the world market. But most people don’t know that. And they think he’s the president of the United States and he can get things done.

MS. IFILL: Well, and the other thing the president has going for him and working against him – I don’t know. There seems like every good thing he’s got going, he’s got something bad. But the fractured Republican Party is a good thing for him. The united Democratic Party, incumbents it’s a good thing for him. But he also has time to build a general election strategy.

MR. MCMANUS: He has time to build a general election strategy and he has the advantage of the Oval Office. He can generate regulations on housing, for example. His housing policy hasn’t been working until now but he’s thrown up a blizzard of Clintonesque little housing regulations to help veterans, to help those in the military, to help people around –

MS. IFILL: We saw that bully pulpit press conference on Tuesday.

MR. MCMANUS: Exactly. He can do things on immigration so that when his opponents on the Republican side are competing with each other in those rough and tumble debates on who could be toughest on immigration, he can do something nice for Latinos.

MS. IFILL: But, Jeff, I thought it was interesting to see what you wrote about deep in the bowels of the operation of the actual campaign in Chicago. They’re leaving nothing to chance.

MR. ZELENY: Leaving nothing to chance at all. I took a visit to the headquarters last week and I was stunned by the size of it – 300 people are working in Chicago. A lot more than that are working across the country. And they are using every new tool at their disposal. And they’re doing – the campaign has a chief scientist. And I asked to meet that person.

MS. IFILL: What’s that?

MR. ZELENY: And they said, no. He’s in the black box. He’s sort of pilot. But what it means is they are really using every – you know, through Facebook and social media and analytics that companies use to try and find out consumer preferences. They are trying to go and find more Barack Obama supporters to give them small dollar contributions and other things. And one of the reasons is because all of the ones who supported him last time are not engaged this time. Some were turned off. Some have moved on, et cetera. But they are leaving nothing to chance. It’s going to be only a small – if this is a close election, which it is, it’s on the margins. Things like this could matter. And they have the money to do it.

MS. IFILL: And we know that they’re arguing over the same 10 percent that Romney or whoever it wants – (inaudible) – so it’s going to be a fight to the finish. Thank you all very much. We have to leave you a few minutes early to give you the chance to support your local PBS station which in turn supports us.

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Keep up with developments on air and online every day at the PBS’s “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.