MS. IFILL: Candidates step on the gas as the presidential campaign picks up speed, and grasping for peace in Syria, tonight on Washington Week.

One challenger falls.

FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): While this presidential race for us is over, for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting.

MS. IFILL: While another comes into focus.

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: This is a president who also has some explaining to do to the women of America.

MS. IFILL: As both candidates compete for women voters, a Democratic pundit takes on Ann Romney.

HILARY ROSEN [Democratic Pundit]: His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.

MS. IFILL: Not a fight the Obama campaign wants.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates.

MS. IFILL: What does this mini-explosion tell us about the fight for women voters and the stakes for the fall? While at the United Nations, a ticking clock is reset on Syria.

SUSAN RICE [U.S. Ambassador to United Nations]: Whatever we choose to call it, we face a moment of truth coming up.

MS. IFILL: Can Bashar al-Assad be trusted?

Covering the week: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Beth Reinhard of National Journal, John Harris of Politico, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles 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. Rick Santorum is out. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul inexplicably are still in. But all that matters now is Mitt Romney and Barack Obama racing to define the other as the man you do not want to be president. Romney made his case today in St. Louis at the National Rifle Association Convention.

MR. ROMNEY: This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is we’re struggling because our government is too big. I’m running for president because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess.

MS. IFILL: The president spent his week pushing for the Buffett Rule which would raise taxes on the nation’s wealthiest, something he said Ronald Reagan would have supported.

PRES. OBAMA: He thought that in America the wealthiest should pay their fair share and he said so. I know that position might disqualify him from the Republican primaries these days. But what Ronald Reagan was calling for then is the same thing that we’re calling for now, a return to basic fairness and responsibility.

MS. IFILL: It takes only a glance at the latest general election matchups to detect what each man is trying to accomplish, to paint the other as out of touch with you. So how is all that playing out, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Well, based on what we’ve seen so far this week, it’s, A, playing out at warp speed. We’re actually in – we thought we might get a little bit of a break after the nomination battle ended, but we’re in a very critical period here and both of the campaigns are acting that way.

I mean, what we know at this point is that Governor Romney came out of the primaries scarred in some important ways and he has some important repair work that he’s got to do. First of all, he’s got to unite a party in which a lot of conservatives still distrust him, and at the same time he’s got to try to move to the middle and try to appeal to some of the demographic groups, women and Hispanics in particular, who’ve probably moved away from him during the nomination battle. His goal, obviously, is to try to get his campaign focused on the president and on the economy as quickly as he possibly can do.

MS. IFILL: His goal also seems to be not to borrow trouble, as my mother used to say. He went to the National Rifle Association Convention today, but he mentioned the word “gun” once. And then late this afternoon, he released his tax returns. Basically what he did was really release an extension on his taxes. They will play that down the road. He’s not doing anything to shake the boat very much.

MR. BALZ: No, but he can’t afford to at this point. The worst thing that could happen to him at this point is a big mistake or even a modest mistake. We know he made some of those during the primaries and he can’t afford to do that in this period. This is a very important definitional period. The Obama campaign obviously is being very aggressive in trying to paint him as somebody who’s out of touch and protective of the wealthy. He can’t do anything that plays into the idea that he’s too far to the right, that he’s too detached from average workers. So he’s trying to, as he did in that speech today, draw the distinctions with the president and put the president on the defensive.

MR. HARRIS: Dan, what’s the closest historical analogy to what the Obama people are trying to do to Romney? Are they trying to make him like Bob Dole, a good guy but just of a different era? Are they trying to paint him as dangerous? Are they trying to paint him as what?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think the closest parallel at least technically is what the Bush campaign in ’04 tried to do and did with some success to John Kerry, which is to aggressively define him negatively and to sort of stamp him indelibly – in that case it was as a flip-flopper – to stamp him indelibly before he could kind of get his feet under him after the primary campaign.

I was talking to Tad Devine. He was key strategist for Kerry in that campaign. And he said, we came out of that campaign, we had $2 million in the bank and the Bush campaign had $100 million in the bank and they were able to do a lot of things early on. I think that’s the closest parallel that I see right now.

MR. MCMANUS: How successful has the Obama side been on that so far? What is Mitt Romney’s image like in the eyes of non-Republican voters who weren’t in primary states who maybe didn’t tune in until now?

MR. BALZ: Well, the biggest gap that exists today has to do with personal attributes of the two candidates. A Post/ABC poll that came out this week asked the question of who’s the more likeable candidate. And it was the president by 64 to 26 or 28. It’s just an enormous gap. It’s not the only thing that matters in campaigns but we know that that’s an important thing. If you look at some of the issues, they’re a lot closer.

I mean, who do people trust on the issues, whether it’s creating jobs or dealing with the economy, you know, this looks like a much more competitive campaign from that angle. But Governor Romney certainly has to make up some ground that he’s lost because of what the nomination battle did to him.

MS. REINHARD: What does Governor Romney have going for him? What do the polls show on high?

MS. IFILL: Must be opportunities there.

MR. BALZ: Well, the biggest thing he has going for him is the economy. I mean, there have been some improvements in the economy, but the unemployment rate is still above 8 percent. The number of underemployed people is significant. And on the Post/ABC poll, president’s under water in terms of disapproval in his handling of the economy. It was 44 approved and 54 percent disapproved. Seventy-six percent of the people in the country do not think that the economy is in a recovery. They still think it’s in a recession. And so Governor Romney is going to continue to try to focus on those aspects and remind people that it’s this president who hasn’t gotten us to a better place faster.

MS. IFILL: Well, if you want to know a test of what the stakes are, it’s nothing like the last 24 hours to test it. It seems everybody wants women voters. This week we’ve got a glimpse of just how much.

A brief recap: seeking to exploit a 19-point gender gap, Obama forces said Republican policies are hurting women. Republicans said, no. That would be the Democrats. Mitt Romney cited advice he’d gotten from his wife, Ann. Then Democratic pundit and analyst Hilary Rosen suggested Ann Romney wouldn’t know because, quote, “she’s never worked a day in her life.” Queue the outrage from Republicans, but also from the president, the vice president, the first lady, and every senior official in the Obama campaign. And, bingo, we were back in the middle of a fight over working mothers. We’ve been here before. The question is why are we here again, Beth?

MS. REINHARD: Well, we’re here because of that 19-point gender gap that you mentioned. And, obviously, both sides are trying to either, you know, keep it as large as possible or close it. And, in Romney’s case, this gaffe by the Democratic strategist allowed him to deflect attention – he’s really been on the defensive – you know, deflect attention from his deficit of support and go on the offensive, go on the attack with a very broad brush and use these comments – these ill-chosen words to suggest that Democrats look down on working women. And, like you said, the pushback was enormous.

MS. IFILL: It sounded like the campaign is very worried even though they have this huge advantage.

MS. REINHARD: Right. It shows you how sensitive this issue is and it shows you how desperately Obama needs to keep his advantage among women because he’s at disadvantage among men. He’s also at a disadvantage among women without college degrees.

MS. IFILL: And married women.

MS. REINHARD: Yes. So that said a lot, the amount of pushback. The other thing is that Ann Romney is a very sympathetic, likeable person. So the last thing that the Obama campaign wants to do is to come across as picking on someone who has raised five boys, has suffered illnesses. So it was just bad public relations.

MR. HARRIS: I was struck by – that impolitic remark I think happened sometime between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. at night. The pushback on Twitter was taking place effectively in real time. We had a full uproar basically by midnight. I guess I’m wondering, do you think that people reacted quickly enough that this is kind of catnip for all of us but really of no consequence?

MS. REINHARD: Well, it is –

MR. HARRIS: They went so aggressively on defense.


MR. HARRIS: There’s not much left to talk about it seems like.

MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, there is sort of this political score keeping that goes on in the first 24 hours. And I’m not sure what – you know, the real policy questions that are behind this, which candidate is actually going to do something, is actually committed to policies that will help him. And you got at that a little bit with the Lilly Ledbetter, you know, the discussion of the legislation that President Obama signed. And an aide for Governor Romney paused awkwardly when asked whether Governor Romney supported that, when, in fact, it should have been a reflexive yes.

MS. IFILL: And ultimately he said he did.


MR. MCMANUS: You know, Beth, we sometimes talk as if women were one homogenous group and they’re not, but let me keep up that error and ask a very old question, which is, what do women want? If you listen to the Obama campaign, it’s as if what women are concerned about is abortion rights and coverage of contraception. If you listen to Mitt Romney, well, Mrs. Romney has told him women are interested in the economy and jobs. Which is it?

MS. REINHARD: Right. Well, of course, women – just like voters across the board, Hispanics, African-Americans, men – the economy is their top concern. Having said that, just like Hispanics on the issue of immigration – when women hear a candidate talking about contraception or abortion in a way in which they come across as insensitive or not understanding what average women go through, they pick up on that tone, just like Hispanics I think can pick up on an unfriendly tone when candidates are taking a hard line against immigration. And that seeps into their consciousness even though the economy is far and away their biggest concern.

MR. BALZ: Beth, let’s look at the other side of the ledger. If this gender gap among women persists, maybe it comes down a bit, how much opportunity does Governor Romney have to offset that with an opposite gender gap? In other words, how much can he get a positive vote from men to offset the other?

MS. REINHARD: Absolutely. I think that’s part of their game plan. You know, in these campaigns it’s all about minimizing the deficits you have and maximizing the advantages that you have and turning that on the other opponent. So I think that that’s something that you’ll definitely see the Romney campaign doing.

MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, let’s move on to the broader picture because in the wake of all of this, we can now take stock of who these two candidates really are. John Harris writes in Politico – and don’t tell anyone this – that Obama and Romney are more alike than either is likely to admit. How is that and how will it influence the campaign? Make your case, John.

MR. HARRIS: If there’s one thing that we’ve all written and I think we all to some extent certainly believe is that we are living in an angry, divisive, polarized age, and the candidates, the politicians who prosper are those who tap into that anger and in many ways themselves represent it. And we have plenty of examples of people who have ridden waves by tapping into that grievance.

But if you look at the end of the day, and I think we now are at the end of the day, we’ve got these two nominees, we know what the general election contest is, that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

We’ve got two sort of cool, rational men who are going to go into the general election actually probably trying to present themselves as more partisan, more zealously devoted to ideology than they actually are. In the case of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, we’ve got long records that make clear fundamentally what drives these men who do come from different orientations, no doubt about it, but what fundamentally drives them is the art of the deal. They are fundamentally pragmatists.

So you’ve definitely got this paradox. I don’t think it’s an accident. I think our politics is so high octane, so driven by frenzies of the sort we saw in the Hilary Rosen story. The stakes – the media stakes are so high that actually the people who survive this process are the cool, disciplined ones who manage to sort of keep their wits about them, stay on message. Discipline matters. Somebody like Newt Gingrich, who can tap into the anger, doesn’t in fact at the end of the day have the discipline.

MS. IFILL: Yet they play both sides of the game which is to say they are very calm and rational and reasonable people but the folks who are campaigning on their behalf, their spokesmen, the super PACs, are still going like that.

MR. HARRIS: That’s right, because we’re in an era of politics where of course the center matters. You want to get those independent voters, but equally and perhaps more important is motivating and energizing your base.

MR. BALZ: Let me ask Gwen’s question this way. Do you think we are heading toward an election in which the debate is fairly rational and high toned or are we heading for an election in which, despite the fact that these two candidates are as you describe them, we’re going to have an angry, polarized, sometimes not well informed contest in terms of the debate that the candidates themselves set off?

MR. HARRIS: I think the general election debates probably will be fairly elevated. I think both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are intelligent, sort of decent men who aren’t sort of prone to the kind of politics as food fight. But I think much of – as Gwen suggests – much of the sort of day in, day out action, the storyline of the campaign, if you will, will be I think much kind of harsher, more elbows-out thing.

It will be interesting to have a campaign with the candidates on truth serum. I think if we put them on truth serum – we’d have to buy it in bulk, right? We could it get it at Costco or something. (Laughter.) But I think you’d find that these – Barack Obama is a man of the center left. Mitt Romney is a man of the center right. So they have disagreements, but they aren’t these mortal antagonisms. They’d actually find themselves agreeing on a lot if they were on truth serum.

MS. REINHARD: Doesn’t, though, especially in Governor Romney’s case, the kind of coolness that you’re describing in his personality, doesn’t that hurt him as he’s trying to mobilize the grassroots? We’ve heard a lot of talk during the primary about this deficit in Republican enthusiasm. How does he kind of correct that?

MR. HARRIS: I think he’s got to fake it, right? He’s got to pretend that he’s sort of more radical, more aggrieved, sort of more populist person than he really is, or than his full biography suggests that he is.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, in both cases though you’ve had a debate over whether Mitt Romney is really a real conservative or is he really in his heart of hearts a moderate? Is Barack Obama the most liberal president we’ve ever had or really a centrist? Are you suggesting that actually these guys do well because they keep us guessing on those questions?

MR. HARRIS: No. I don’t really think that. Let me try this one on for size. These men do well because they are both supremely products of the great American meritocracy. Another thing people often say is, there are no good people, no qualified people, none of the most accomplished people run. Well, I’m sorry, both these guys were identified decades ago by peers, by elders when they were in their 20s as men of supreme potential, supreme talent. The people who get to the top of the greasy pole, as a matter, tend to be pretty talented. And what’s more, they have kind of the credentials that you expect in American life – (inaudible).

MR. MCMANUS: You’re saying it’s because they both spent so much time in the faculty lounge at Harvard. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: It turns out elitism has its privileges. Okay. Let’s move on because we still want to get to another political drama that was continuing to unfold, this one here at home, but there was a much more difficult and bloody battle that’s playing out in Syria. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been trying to come up with a workable ceasefire for the yearlong uprising that the U.N. estimates has now cost 9,000 lives. And his efforts have been greeted with skepticism.

KOFI ANNAN [U.N. Special Envoy to Syria]: So I think the plan is very much alive. And if you want to take it off the table, what would you replace it with?

SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN (I-CT): What we have in the Annan plan is a good faith effort by a good man, Kofi Annan, which ran directly into a bad faith response from a bad man, Bashar al-Assad.

MS. IFILL: So, Doyle, where do things stand tonight?

MR. MCMANUS: Well, there has been a ceasefire in place, the ceasefire that Kofi Annan was negotiating. And somewhat to everyone’s surprise, it has actually held.

Friday is a very important day in any Arab or Muslim country because Friday is the Sabbath. Friday is the day people go to the mosque. And then, after they go to the mosque at noon, that’s when the big demonstrations happened. And this Friday, big demonstrations happened again. There were some deaths – maybe a dozen, maybe 25, but, boy, that was way lower than the kind of numbers we had seen before. The Syrian army did not fire with tanks or artillery into the city, so in a kind of a short-term way this thing is in a very fragile way holding together.

But the Kofi Annan plan has six points. They include the army pulling out of the cities. That hasn’t happened yet. They include the government allowing the opposition free movement. That hasn’t happened yet. They include negotiations between the government and the opposition. That hasn’t happened yet.

What we’ve got here is kind of a short game and a long game. The short game, the government of Bashar Assad looked at the picture, looked at the sanctions that were rising, looked at the terrible blow it was taking in its public image, and it was getting some pressure from its Russian allies as well, from shelling its own cities, so they pulled back a little bit. The long game, though, is Bashar Assad still plans to stay in power. So the opposition expects the repression to stay on and in effect for this confrontation to continue in slow motion.

MR. BALZ: A couple of questions. One is how much confidence does the administration have in Kofi Annan and his ability to try to pull something off? And, B, what’s the debate like within the administration about what to do if this doesn’t work?

MS. IFILL: And whether intervention is inevitable?

MR. MCMANUS: Yes. Well, Kofi Annan – actually, the administration has pretty high regard for Kofi Annan as a professional negotiator, but his problem is he’s representing a U.N. Security Council that doesn’t want to go as far as the United States wants to go.

So, for example, there was an Arab League peace plan that fell apart because the Arab League really didn’t have the moxie and the leverage to make it work that called for Assad to step down. Kofi Annan’s plan doesn’t call for him to step down. Why? Because you couldn’t get Russia and China to sign on if you called for him to step down. So it’s a very limited set of incremental steps and nobody expects the Kofi Annan plan to solve the problem. It really gets to a ceasefire. And, if it calms things down and stops people being killed by the dozens, that’s pretty good.

Now, where does it go from here? That’s their end. And what does the administration want out of this? That’s the really interesting question. You’ve got in effect a civil war in slow-motion going on. You’ve got an opposition that is building an army that is slowly coming together with aid from places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but that’s been very slow. In effect, both sides wanted to pause. The administration doesn’t want a military intervention. They want Bashar Assad to step down, but the administration doesn’t have the leverage in place to make that happen.

MR. HARRIS: They didn’t want a military intervention in Libya a year ago. And at least at the surface level, these two situations seem very similar. To what extent does Libya inform the administration response? This time it’s Syria. And are they as similar as they seem or are the differences more important?

MR. MCMANUS: Great question. In the short run, they’re very different. The big difference is in Libya, Colonel Gadhafi had no friends. He didn’t have the Russians on his side. He didn’t have the Chinese on his side. So the rest of the world felt it could intervene. The French and the British wanted to come in. Syria rather harder to do that, but let’s watch this picture six months from now – six months from now, after all else has failed, this may look an awful lot more like Syria and the administration –

MS. IFILL: You mean more like Libya.

MR. MCMANUS: Like Libya – I’m sorry – and the administration having gotten a little bit pregnant, having said, we want Assad to step down, may find itself having to make that choice.

MS. IFILL: Six months from now it’s hard to know how many more lives will have been lost in that period of time. Thank you, Doyle. And thanks everybody else.

That’s it for here for now, but the conversation continues online in the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” where we’ll try to make sense of North Korea’s rockets and President Obama’s Buffett Rule. Keep up with daily developments on air and online on the PBS NewsHour.

And before we go tonight, we want to send our condolences to Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace on the loss of his father, Mike, a man who truly changed journalism. See you next week on Washington Week. Goodnight.