MS. IFILL: The incredible shrinking presidential campaign. Is it always this messy or is it just August, tonight on “Washington Week.”

Nice words on the stump.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a choice between two fundamentally different visions about how we move this country forward.

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [Presumptive GOP Presidential Nominee]: I happen to believe that we’re on the verge of an extraordinary rebound in America’s economy with good jobs and rising incomes again.

MS. IFILL: Down and dirty on the air.

JOE SOPTIC [Former GST Steel Employee]: She passed away in 22 days. I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone. And, furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.

MAN [Narrator]: Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They’d just send you your welfare check.

MS. IFILL: Drilling down with Mitt Romney accusing the president of encouraging dependency.

MR. ROMNEY: President Obama in just the last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare. That is wrong. If I’m president, I’ll put work back in welfare.

MS. IFILL: And the president accusing Romney of robbing the poor.

PRES. OBAMA: It’s Romneyhood. (Laughter.) They have tried to sell us this trickle-down tax cut fairy dust before. And guess what? It does not work.

MS. IFILL: Counting down to the conventions, the biggest open question is: who will run with Romney? The short list shrinks.

Covering the week, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times; Beth Reinhard of National Journal; 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.

(Station announcements.)

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

MS. IFILL: Good evening. To tell you the truth, I was out of town for most of the week. From a distance, everything I saw and read about the presidential campaign seemed incredibly small.

The Senate majority leader continued to accuse the Republican nominee of not paying taxes. He felt no need to offer proof. Then the ads began. This one from Obama allies at the Priorities USA PAC seemed to link Mitt Romney to a woman’s death from cancer.

MR. SOPTIC: I don’t think he realizes that people’s lives completely changed. When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. And my family lost their health care. And a short time after that, my wife became ill. I don’t know how long she was sick. And I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance.

MS. IFILL: The Romney response out today.

MAN [Narrator]: When his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman’s death for political gain and stood by as his top aides were caught lying about it – doesn’t America deserve better than a president that will say or do anything to stay in power?

MS. IFILL: But there was also this: the Romney campaign accused the president of gutting welfare reform.

MAN [Narrator]: Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They’d just send you your welfare check. And welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare. Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement, because it works.

MS. IFILL: The Obama campaign response –

MAN [Narrator]: The Washington Post says the Obama administration is not removing the bill’s work requirements at all. In fact, Obama’s getting states to move 20 percent more people from welfare to work. And President Clinton’s reaction to the Romney ad? It’s just not true.

MS. IFILL: Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that neither campaign is being completely truthful about the other. But they’re rolling in the mud for a reason. Let’s explain.

First, on this welfare debate – is it real? What is false and what is true? And why are we arguing about it, Jeff?

MR. ZELENY: Well, some people I think were surprised that we’re even discussing welfare at all because it’s not a central issue in the campaign.

MS. IFILL: Except there’s a hot button.

MR. ZELENY: Right. It is a hot-button issue. And what is the central issue? It’s the economy. The people have jobs on their minds. They have someone in their family who does not have a job. So this touches all of those buttons. So never mind the fact that it’s not accurate. All the independent fact checkers out there have said it’s not accurate.

But, first, what the Romney campaign is trying to do here with this is reach out to those blue-collar working class voters who may not be quite sure about Governor Romney.

They’ve heard all summer long that he has been a profiteer. He’s wealthy. He’s hiding secrets. He’s not releasing his tax returns. So this is something of an antidote to that from the campaign, just sort of change the focus. And it did so rather dramatically by putting the Obama campaign on the defensive.

So never mind if it’s true or not. And this one isn’t true. But it seems like truth is not a criteria now on any side of the debate. But the difference in this Medicare ad is this is actually airing heavily across the country in battleground states. The other ad, that we saw by the Priorities USA Super PAC actually have never been on television one time.

MS. IFILL: Except on programs like ours. I heard there were half a million hits online with that Priorities USA ad, which, of course, if you were watching just the one about – I just blanked out – one about Joe Soptic is the one about the work whose wife died of cancer.

So what is the point if it’s only online? Is it just to stir the conversation we’ve having, once again, the flipside of what the Romney folks are doing?

MS. REINHARD: Sure. If he can get your ad distributed for free, have people going onto the Internet to watch it, have the networks and the cable stations airing it repeatedly, I mean, that’s the best gift of all. That’s free publicity.

MR. HARWOOD: And it’s definitely an asymmetrical force in these campaigns because you’ve got the Republican side with – that’s raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the ads and they’re putting heavy money behind the welfare ad, as Jeff mentioned.

You’ve got interestingly this incumbent president whose Super PAC is not raising a ton of money, but they’re able to leverage a piece of film that has not aired on television one time and everybody’s talking about it. It’s a fascinating way they’re doing it.

And on that welfare ad, by the way, it’s no accident that that was a woman factory worker shown in the welfare ad because one of the key constituencies that has slid away from Romney, as we’ve seen some of these polls show Obama opening a lead outside the margin of error, are non-college white women. And Mitt Romney is trying to stop that slide.

MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about that, Beth, because you wrote about that this week, which is the degree to which the Obama campaign so far has an edge among these women. And these ads in some way are targeted to them as well, from both sides.

MS. REINHARD: Yes, very much so. I mean, the Obama campaign has tailored ads toward different constituencies that it wants – already has a lead with and it wants to extend that lead. They have ads tailored to women, ads tailored to Hispanics.

The Romney campaign has a much different kind of message. It’s a much broader message, and it’s the economy.

But the Obama campaign is going about it differently and hoping that it can pick off some of those swing voters, those women who maybe are not in love with Obama. They’re thinking about Mitt Romney. And they’re not sure if they’re totally comfortable with the Republican Party on social issues.

MS. IFILL: Here’s something that I find that they seem to have in common. Both sides seem to be playing to grievance and to the aggrieved, whether it’s the woman in the Obama ad who says Mitt Romney scares me, or the white, working class man who the Obama campaign is having trouble getting, who the Romney folks seem to be trying to nail down. It seems like it’s all playing to kind of everyone’s anxiety and the idea that someone else is either taking something from them or giving something to someone else.

MR. ZELENY: I think that’s right because this campaign is in its essence about the economy. It is about people’s economic anxieties, sort of their fear for the future and other things. And John’s absolutely right about the women.

I was up in Boston this week talking to a lot of Romney campaign advisors, and they were actually very proud of this welfare ad because they said it tests extremely well with independents and they said specifically with women.

So it’s one thing that is worrisome to them. In some of these battleground polls like in Ohio, for example, a very important state for Governor Romney and President Obama, he is falling behind with women. So it will be interesting to see how much this ad affects things there, if at all, because it’s running in very heavy rotations in those states.

MS. IFILL: It’s interesting that it tests well with women, because you talk to voters and I’m not certain how much they’re paying attention to these, actual voters as opposed to test marketed voters. You were in Ohio this week.

MR. HARWOOD: I was in Ohio earlier this week, and I talked to an undecided voter in a shopping center. And I was trying to capture who these people are actually receiving campaign information, because there’s a flurry of advertisements and mail and phone calls.

MS. IFILL: Flurry is a kind way of putting it – avalanche.

MR. HARWOOD: And this woman fit the profile the pollsters have told me of this relatively small group of undecided voters, which is they tend to be low-information voters. They’re not following the campaign closely. They’re fairly disaffected from politics. They don’t have a stable partisan identification.

And this woman was saying, I mute the ads when they come on. I hang up on the phone calls when they come. Both of these guys are playing these sort of nasty games with each other and it’s not serious. It’s not about my life. And I don’t see stakes in my life if on or the other gets elected. I won’t watch the conventions. I will watch the debates to see how they react under pressure at that moment and maybe I’ll make a decision a day or two before the election.

MS. IFILL: How has she voted in the past? Did she tell you?

MR. HARWOOD: She voted for Obama in 2008; said she always votes, but she’s somebody who started out as a Democrat, drifted to the Republicans. I didn’t ask her this specifically but likely during the Reagan years; then came back, was disaffected, certainly disaffected by the end of the Bush years and voted for Obama.

But it goes to the point that you were asking a minute ago, these ads being all about grievance. Think about it: who in this country is really in a good mood and feeling optimistic about the future right now? We get consistently 60 percent or more of the people saying the country is on the wrong track. Approval rating for Congress is terrible. The president has a decent approval rating and people like him.

But this is a fundamentally a race between an incumbent president who is weighed down by a bad economy and high unemployment trying to make the race equally or more about the agenda of this Republican and make him unpopular.

MS. REINHARD: John, you mentioned that the president – his likeability, as pollsters will say, is decent. It’s taken a hit, but it’s still better than Romney’s. And I think that one of those ads that we just saw, the response ad to the Priorities ad that never ran saying this is beneath the president, and he uses the words – you know, Obama will “say or do anything” to get elected. I mean, they’re trying to chip away at that likeability.

And what’s also really interesting to me about saying or do anything, I mean, that sounds like the worst description that you would hear of Mitt Romney. And so they’re taking that –

MS. IFILL: Or of any politician actually.

MS. REINHARD: Right. But Romney especially has had to fend off that charge, that he’s, you know, just doing it for the political wins, not because he truly believes that in his heart. And so it’s interesting for them to turn that around back on the president.

MR. ZELENY: And they’re trying to remind people that, look, President Obama is a politician now. He may not have been four years ago, but he is a politician now.

One of the more interesting ads – I think it’s still playing – the Republican National Committee is running an ad basically giving – it’s almost flattering in a way – not really – to President Obama saying, it’s okay. He tried. It’s giving people –

MS. IFILL: It’s okay to change your mind.

MR. ZELENY: It’s a permission structure to vote against President Obama. I’m actually surprised that it’s coming in August as opposed to in the end of October. Perhaps it will come again.

MS. IFILL: It will come back.

MR. ZELENY: But it’s really fascinating because if you voted for President Obama the first time, if it was a vote of history or a vote of –

MS. IFILL: Getting caught up in the excitement. Yes.

MR. ZELENY: – it is giving people, it’s okay to not vote for him again. It’s fascinating.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask you – to take all of that and make it work with these polls we’ve seen. The Times has done two rounds of battleground state polls. We’ve seen some national polls. Interestingly, Fox and CNN have the president ahead by a healthy margin, seven or eight points nationally, but Gallup has him in a dead heat. That may have something to do with how the polls are taken. But in these battleground states, the president is not doing badly either.

What are – what is the result – what’s causing that? What’s driving that?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think fundamentally what’s happened is that the public has acquired, with a lot of help from the Obama campaign and Democrats, a more unfavorable view of Mitt Romney.

Here’s the problem with that attempt to say Obama will say or do anything. It’s hard to shift people’s opinions or feelings about a president they’ve been living with for four years, much easier to mould the image of somebody who’s burst onto the scene as the Republican nominee. And I think that’s what’s driven down Mitt Romney – the Bain attacks, the tax attacks, the he’s-a-rich-guy attacks. And Romney’s got his work cut out for him at the convention to try to flesh out a little bit of positive persona.

MS. REINHARD: That was really the gamble that the Obama campaign took. They said, we’re going to spend early and we’re going to spend aggressively and we’re going to attack him.

MS. IFILL: And they have, by the way. They spent a lot of money.

MS. REINHARD: And they did. And they did. And the gamble was, are we going to taint the good name of President Obama, who does have this good will and this likeability, are we going to put him in sort of the muck with everyone else, or, better yet, are we going to take a guy like Romney, who is not as well known as the president, and we’re going to define him for you. We’re going to define him in a very unfavorable way.

MS. IFILL: When you look at these battleground state polls, you’ll see six states that you’ve looked out so far, which I believe are Obama, Virginia – did I say Obama – Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio –

MR. ZELENY: And Colorado.

MS. IFILL: And Colorado. Okay. So when you look at those, what does that tell you about the kinds of inroads these candidates are making based on what’s resonating in the states that will decide the election?

MR. ZELENY: A couple of takeaways. One is that Governor Romney basically is doing fine on the economy. If this election really was only about the economy and nothing else, he would be actually doing quite well, but it’s about more than that.

The biggest worry sign for the Romney campaign in these polls is the empathy factor. There’s a very large empathy gap here. He does not understand the concerns or the problems of people’s lives.

Ohio is the most striking – almost 20 points difference. Now, with the margin of error – it might be smaller than that, but it’s one of the worry signs on that front.

But for the president, though, it is basically saying that people don’t believe that his economic policies are going to help. They sort of lost hope in his plan. And they’re really open to the idea of supporting Governor Romney, but they’re not there yet.

I think some voters have made the decision that, okay, we might have to fire President Obama, but they’re not quite there on hiring Governor Romney. But among women is also a big factor because Governor Romney is trailing among Hispanics and women, and he knows – his campaign is aware that they have to close those margins if he’s going to close the gap.

MS. IFILL: So let’s talk about the buzz of the moment. Does it matter who Mitt Romney’s running mate is? And, if it does, given what we know, in the inroads he needs to make in order to unseat an incumbent, who will help, who will hurt? Does it matter?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I would say it matters, not a lot. But it matters a little.

MS. IFILL: For electoral purposes, not for historical purposes.

MR. HARWOOD: Yes, not a lot, but it matters a little. It can reinforce the image of the nominee. It might be able to add a point or two in a swing state that you need to win because of the familiarity and the positive reputation that somebody has in their home state. And it can either arouse your base nationally and appeal to swing voters, or do the opposite.

When I think about the top candidates, you think Tim Pawlenty, who had a good record as governor of Minnesota. Minnesota is a state that’s kind of a long shot for Mitt Romney to carry.

You’ve got Rob Portman of Ohio who – very solid guy. He worked for President Bush and he would raise some of the memories of the Bush administration, but Ohio is a very important state.

Paul Ryan, a third candidate, is the advocate of a very controversial budget plan that would pull Medicare and Social Security more firmly into the campaign.

When I look at all that, I think Portman makes the most sense because of the centrality of Ohio, but –

MS. IFILL: That’s because you’re a Washington insider.

MR. HARWOOD: Yes, exactly.

MS. IFILL: What do you guys think?

MS. REINHARD: Well, what I was going to say is that I think one mistake a lot of people make in analyzing these vice presidential candidates is – there’s this idea that somehow the vice presidential candidates’ personality rubs off on the nominee. And I just – I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I mean, if people are going to be – not going to think Romney’s more down to earth because he chooses Tim Pawlenty, who grew up in a very blue collar background.

MR. HARWOOD: He plays hockey.

MS. REINHARD: Yes. I just think Mitt Romney is still Mitt Romney.

MS. IFILL: Except that there’s a very popular wave right now, at least in conservative circles, still for Marco Rubio with the assumption that his excitement and his speech giving abilities and his personality theoretically could rub off or at least represent something.

MR. ZELENY: Absolutely. And it’s one of the drawbacks for the Romney campaign of not already making the announcements because they’ve created a vacuum so there can be all this sort of chatter. And the Wall Street Journal editorial board weighed in very heavily this week as did the Weekly Standard for Paul Ryan.

But I think we have to look at what Governor Romney said his principles were at the very beginning – someone who is prepared to step into the job from day one, prepared to campaign on a national level. And I’m not sure that Senator Rubio fits that bill. So I think that we believe that the short list are the three people that we have mentioned here.

I think that the possibility for surprise is much less this time around because of Sarah Palin, of course. And they have done their absolutely due diligence, sent researchers out. They have fully vetted I believe all of these potential candidates, because Governor Romney does not want to repeat the four years ago and having any surprise sort of upset this race at all. It’s within striking distance for him. And this above all should not hurt – should maybe help, but definitely it should not hurt.

MR. HARWOOD: And everything we’ve seen about the Mitt Romney campaign so far points toward being risk adverse so we’ll see whether he follows that.

MS. IFILL: Can we just in general just tie a bow on this? We’re in the dog days of August. A little cliché is always good at this time. Is this low road that we seem to be on, no matter whether the nominee can break through with his vice presidential pick or not, is this just what happens, or is there something different about the speed, the velocity, the money that’s being spent this time, which has made this, Beth, seem like a different or a dirtier kind of campaign at this stage?

MS. REINHARD: I think the debates will help to elevate the conversation. I think what you say it’s the dog days of August, we are kind of waiting or waiting to hear who Romney is going to pick as his running mate. We’re waiting for the conventions. And so –

MS. IFILL: So we’re dancing in place.

MS. REINHARD: It’s a little bit of the silly season.

MS. IFILL: Briefly, you.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I do think that the velocity issue is a real one and that the polarization of the country and the ever presence of media of all kinds means people get locked in earlier. Later events matter less. It’s the reason why the Obama team started to spend so heavily early.

MR. ZELENY: Especially with early voting and these Super PAC ads – a new dynamic, much more aggressive ad – and people will see the same ads more times in the next two and a half months.

MS. IFILL: They’re calling each other liars on a daily basis saying the other has lost credibility. After this, the general election in the fall is going to seem like, nah, it’s going to keep getting bad, right?

Thank you everybody. Thank you very much. I’m sorry that we have to leave you a few minutes early tonight so you can give a little love to your local PBS stations which in turn support us.

But our conversation will continue, as it always does, online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.”

Want to know how much our panelists are looking forward to the political conventions, find us at PBS – a lot really – find us at Then keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” especially Monday when I’ll have an interview with Mitt Romney.

And then we’ll see you here again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.