MS. IFILL: Hello and welcome to St. Petersburg, Florida, just across the bay from the site of next week’s Republican National Convention. We’re here to tell you everything you need to know, tonight, on “Washington Week.”

A Senate candidate goes rogue.

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN (R-MO): If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

MS. IFILL: As Republicans prepare for next week’s nominating convention, their standard bearers get caught up in an internal fight about abortion.

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: His comments about rape were deeply offensive. And I can’t defend what he said. I can’t defend him.

MS. IFILL: And an external fight about Medicare.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI): President Obama treated Medicare like a piggybank to fund Obamacare. And his campaign calls that an achievement.

MS. IFILL: Not about the economy. So the Democrats pile on.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney said if you want to be successful, if you want to go to college or start a business, you can just – and I’m quoting here – “borrow money if you have to from your parents.”

MS. IFILL: What else is on the Republicans’ plate as Romney’s former competitors and the party’s future stars all head to Tampa? We preview the 2012 Republican National Convention with Dan Balz of the Washington Post; John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News; Beth Reinhard of National Journal; and Amy Walter of ABC News.

ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, this is a special election 2012 edition of “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, from the historic Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Hello, Tampa Bay. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you for that warm welcome and thank you for joining us here in the beautiful Palladium Theater.

Republicans have endured quite an eventful week leading up to their nominating convention here. Party leaders spent the bulk of the week trying to toss one of their most promising Senate candidates out of the pool. The backwash from that effort has forced Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan off message and into a debate over social issues they mostly agree about instead of about the economy.

And even the weather seemed to be conspiring against the GOP as tropical storm Isaac threatened to become a hurricane that could knock the convention off schedule.

Are Republicans scrambling this week, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Gwen, you know, the convention next week will be a completely scripted event and this week has been completely unscripted and it has caused I think problems for the Romney campaign. It has caused problems for the Republican Party as a whole, and it is obviously not the way they had hoped to do the run-up to Tampa.

MS. IFILL: Amy, we had not ever, most of us, heard of Todd Akin, congressman from Missouri, until last week. And now he is probably the most famous member of the party. How did he become such a part of the story?

MS. WALTER: I think now his name is going to be synonymous with a number of things. The first is making really – not only inappropriate but really out of just – nobody could understand what he was thinking about kind of comments, saying that if there’s a legitimate rape, whatever that term means, that women have this ability to shut their system down and not get pregnant.

And this was his way of defending his pro-life status and saying that no matter what, the life of the baby is the most important thing. And this is why he does not agree with the life of the woman or – rape or incest as an exception. The problem of course is that – politically, is that Democrats saw that as an opportunity to tie –

MS. IFILL: You think?

MS. WALTER: Yes, just a little bit. Use that opportunity to make sure that they could tie a party that they already were trying to prove was out of step, too extreme, to an actual literal person.

And when you talk to the Obama campaign, one term they love to talk about is the gender gap. And we, of course, are starting to see that in our own polling, all of our organizations showing that the president is up double digits over Mitt Romney on these issues.

For those of us who sit in a media market that could get saturated, as you do, but we are sitting in the Northern Virginia media market where there are a lot of women voters that they are targeting. I am seeing an ad every day about issues –

MS. IFILL: Every hour.

MS. WALTER: Every minute probably, about – specifically about women’s issues and about abortion.

MS. IFILL: Beth, usually when this sort of thing happens, someone says something way off message, everybody comes down on them from the chairman of the party, who disinvited him from Tampa, from the – every leading member of the House and the Senate, nobody came to Todd Akin’s defense, yet he’s still in the race.

Can he survive? Is it possible? Does he see an opening among the conservative Christian anti-abortion supporters that he has? Does he see a path to survival against Claire McCaskill, by the way, the incumbent?

MS. REINHARD: Right. It’s hard to imagine him continuing on, though I think we’ve all been surprised that he’s hung on as long as he has. I mean, when the nominee of his own party, the presidential nominee of your party says it’s time to go –

MS. IFILL: And you get a call from the vice presidential nominee saying, listen, buddy.

MS. REINHARD: Yes. Most people take a hint. His money is drying up. I’m sure the polls will very quickly show him in a very daunting position against Claire McCaskill.

MS. IFILL: At the very least, John, what we have here is a discussion about disagreement the week before the coming to sort of big unity moment – huge distraction.

MR. DICKERSON: It is a big distraction. And, you know, there was a period this week where it looked like Republicans were saying more mean things about Congressman Akin than they would about a Democratic candidate. (Laughter.) And that sense of panic is also not something you want.

So you have this instance in which they’re talking about abortion, which there’s always a little wrinkle that comes up before a convention, which is that the plank in the platform that covers abortion is usually much more strict than the candidates’ position on the matter.

And that was true with George W. Bush who had an exception in his pro-life views for rape and incest. It was true also of John McCain. McCain tried to change that plank and add that exception and it caused a firestorm. He said, oh, no, not going to do that. Usually there’s a wrinkle. There are a couple of stories about it, then they move back to the unity parade.

What this did was it put in the front pages at the moment they were trying to both show that the party was unified and talk about the economy, talk about Barack Obama, keep the pressure on him and not have this little sort of firestorm of coverage. And the campaign – the Romney campaign says, oh, this is only something you all in the press talk about in the green room.

What made this different was the herd of Republicans who were trying to get rid of him. I mean, that’s news. And also, this is a made-for-television event. And as Dan said, this was a made-for-television disaster. And so it operated in the same environment as what this whole next week is supposed to be about.

MS. WALTER: It is pretty remarkable that two weeks have gone by since Paul Ryan was picked as the nominee. And thus far, Republicans have talked about anything but the economy and Barack Obama. They’ve talked about Medicare. Now they’ve talked about abortion. They’re having to define rape. These are not the things that they wanted to talk about.

MS. IFILL: And speaking of distractions and of taking the topic off point again, today, the nominee, Mitt Romney, was campaigning in his home state of Michigan and had this to say in a little joke before a hometown crowd.

MR. ROMNEY: I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born. Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.

MS. IFILL: Gee, Dan, what could he have been talking about?

MR. BALZ: I have no idea. (Laughter.) You know, it’s baffling. The birther issue, of course, has been out there among a number of Republicans. And for Mitt Romney, on the Friday before his convention is open, to make any kind of reference to it is shocking, frankly. I don’t know what possessed him. They were suggesting that he was making a joke or he was just trying to remind people that he did come from Michigan to a Michigan audience.

One of his spokesmen immediately said he’s long said that the issue of where President Obama was born is a settled issue, et cetera, et cetera. And yet, it has given rise to this again at, again, just the wrong moment.

MS. REINHARD: What was also I thought as sort of surprising as Mitt Romney’s statement was the Barack Obama campaign’s very fast, very strong reaction to it where they suggested Governor Romney was now an enlister in the birther movement which is obviously a little – went much further than what his statement was.

And so to me, that says they actually want to bring more attention to this because as the Romney campaign has been so frustrated by, they don’t want to talk about the economy because that’s not a good reflection on the president right now.

MR. DICKERSON: I was on the phone with an advisor from the Romney campaign earlier today and they were saying, you know, the only thing the Obama campaign does is throw up obstacles in front of us because they can’t talk about the economy. Well, here, Governor Romney was making an obstacle for himself.

MS. IFILL: Exactly.

MS. WALTER: Well, it also though goes to the heart of this election and obviously our electorate in general, which is we do have such a polarized electorate. Certainly Dan Balz can speak to this, wrote a very good piece this week about it. But the fact is that we do have very few really truly swing voters or undecided voters. And so, yes, the two camps are going to be throwing these kinds of terms back and forth. When you say that comment that Mitt Romney did, it engages his group just as much as it engages Democrats.

MS. IFILL: And you raise a question which I’ve been struggling with this week which is we’ve all been saying this is an election about independents, swing voters, battleground states, or is it really, Dan, an election about getting your base to the polls, suppressing the other guys any way you can, turning them off but bringing your folks out?

MR. BALZ: Gwen, I think it’s actually about both, but because the polarization in the electorate is so solid, the first thing that both of these campaigns have to do is maximize the vote among the people they already know are with them. There’s a way to do that. And a lot of the rhetoric that we’ve seen this summer is aimed at that, getting your folks mobilized, energized. And I expect we’ll see that in the hall next week in Tampa.

MS. IFILL: Well, that’s what conventions are for.

MR. BALZ: Right. But to reach the other group, which is a very small group, you have to talk differently. I mean, the one thing – we did a study with the Kaiser Family Foundation that the Post published this week and we looked at all the Republicans, Democrats and independents.

And the one thing that distinguished independents from Republican and Democratic partisans is they hate the fighting in Washington. And so to reach them, you’ve got to talk about working across party lines, cooperation, occasional compromise, which is exactly what the base does not want to hear right now.

MR. DICKERSON: You know, a funny anachronism was in 2000, when George Bush was running for president, at his convention, they did away with what was traditionally the attack night on the other party because they wanted the whole convention to be about building a bipartisan Washington. And here we are 12 years later, and the number of attacks on the sitting president – today this was kind of one – will be one of the main themes.

MS. IFILL: Well, as we enter into this convention week, let’s talk first about what it is the Republicans would like to accomplish with the schedule that we have seen, what we know about it, who we know is going to be speaking, and whether there will be an attack night, for instance? Are we expecting and upbeat, positive, star-spangled convention or has this really got to be the first blow for the fall in reminding people why they should not reelect the president?

MS. WALTER: Well, the most important thing I think for Mitt Romney in this convention is the remaking of the Mitt Romney message and the identity. I mean, for the past few months, it’s Democrats who’ve identified and have made Mitt Romney who he is. His identity has been shaped by millions and millions of dollars of attack ads. He goes into the convention now with the highest negatives of any major party candidate since 1984.

So he has some work to do to build those favorables up and to give that image that he wants to present to the American public. At the same time, they are trying to, of course, still define Barack Obama, but trying to do it proactively.

So if you look at the themes for each day, we built it; we can do better, to say we Republicans are going to do a better job than those Democrats and Barack Obama. So a little bit of a punch with a – and here’s how we’re going to do it better.

MS. IFILL: Which in an election year like this, with the economy being where it is, with the unemployment rate being what it is, this should be a runaway for some challenger, shouldn’t it?

MS. REINHARD: Well, you know, it’s interesting – poll after poll shows that Romney actually had some success in convincing people that he would do a better job with the economy. There are a lot of polls that show him ahead on that measure. But the same polls, poll after poll show people just like the president more. They think he is more – understands their struggles. He gets them.

And it’s interesting that we’ve been talking so long about this election, about the economy, but yet people seem to be, as close as the polls are, kind of going more with their heart than their head at this point.

MS. IFILL: It was interesting to me this week – the Congressional Budget Office, nonpartisan, came out with a report showing that if we cross the fiscal cliff without action from Congress, it’s going to be recession – dire, gloomy report. Neither campaign really picked up on that. I was kind of surprised.

MR. BALZ: Well, they don’t want to talk about that right now.

MS. IFILL: Why not? (Laughter.)

MR. BALZ: Because it involves speaking frankly to voters about very tough choices. Now, we may hear some of this from Paul Ryan next week, because he has a budget blueprint aimed at bringing the debt and deficit more under control.

MS. IFILL: Right. That’s what he’s known for.

MR. BALZ: That’s right. But there are a lot of questions about that and there are a lot of things that the Democrats have attacked and will continue to attack about that. The president has been very slow to address that issue. The Republicans I suspect will attack him this week for a failure of leadership as they’ll describe it. But neither side wants to engage on that.

MS. IFILL: Who is being – who are the voters who are being targeted in all of this? Who are – I mean, I have this idea that we’re just trying to turn out the people who are going to turn out anyway, but maybe there’s something broader than that.

MR. DICKERSON: I tend to agree with Dan – it’s both. And this will be – and it’s a tricky balance for the Romney campaign because they want to both appeal to the hall, and the Paul Ryan pick really helps with that. Conservatives are very excited about Paul Ryan. They were going to vote for Romney anyway. They don’t like President Obama, but now they’re really excited.

MS. IFILL: Energized about it.

MR. DICKERSON: So now there’s just going to be more momentum and energy, and that’s good because the more excited the base is, the more they can turn this into a commercial for people who are just wondering by their televisions and seeing an image in a commercial of the Republican Party and Mitt Romney.

And the question is: what’s the tripwire in terms of likeability? In other words, can people – do they just need to like Mitt Romney a little bit and then, boom, they’re off to the races with him because the economy is so bad? As a Romney advisor was saying, it’s like one big negative. The economy is like one big negative ad that’s always running.

And if that’s out there, then they don’t have to like Mitt Romney too much and it will be very interesting on Thursday night, the night they’re introducing or talking about Mitt Romney, they’re going to talk about his whole life, which means a discussion of both his period at Baine Capital, at the Olympics and also his religion.

 There will be people – when he was a bishop in his ward helping people who were down on their luck and all that that was a part of that they’ve been reluctant to talk about that, they’re going to talk about it Thursday night.

MS. IFILL: Does that sort of thing resonate in battleground states? We’re all watching the same – and we’re in one – we’re all watching the same handful of states which could determine this election?

MS. WALTER: You know, we always talk about this convention bounce. Traditionally, whichever candidate had a better convention, they get this chance now to present their case. Remember Bill Clinton?

MS. IFILL: I remember Mike Dukakis’ convention bounce. Yes. That really worked. (Laughter.)

MS. WALTER: It worked. The one who – I think it was Bill Clinton, he got about a 30-point bounce after his convention. Those don’t happen as much anymore, now partly because we have this back-to-back convention so there’s no time for him to get that.

But I think, again, I think it goes right to John’s point which is what voters are looking for right now – and this is why it’s so dangerous for President Obama – they do like him personally. They don’t think he’s lived up to his promises. They don’t believe that he can necessarily do the job. They don’t know enough about Mitt Romney. They’re just waiting to hear about Mitt Romney.

And so I think for them, the convention is going to give them that one place for the first time that they’re going to get a look at him from his perspective and then the debates are going to be the place where they’re going to make that choice.

MS. REINHARD: One of Romney’s top advisors told me this week, he said, you know, people don’t have to like Mitt Romney. They just need to think that he shares their values, was the way he put it.

And so I think that’s – you’re going to see a lot of that family values, religious values. They’re going to come away from the convention – they hope – with a much warmer feeling about Mitt Romney. You’re going to see is wife. You’re going to see his kids. You’re probably going to see all of his grandkids. You’re going to have a lot of heartfelt testimonials. And that could go a long way in filling that void.

MS. IFILL: That said, is there a risk in Vice President Biden coming here to campaign in the midst of the Republicans’ big victory lap? It just seems like kind of unnecessary.

MR. BALZ: Well, it’s unprecedented – (laughter) – to say the least. But it strikes me that it is a reminder that conventions today are not what we think of conventions as. We used to describe it as basically a four-day infomercial in which the party had free run to do whatever it wanted and the other side kind of stood back and said, okay –

MS. IFILL: Kind of like politics stopping at the water’s edge.

MR. BALZ: Right. This is your week. We’ll have our week later. That’s not the case anymore. The vice president’s going to be here for several days. President Obama is going to be out on the campaign trail next week. The networks are not covering this wall to wall, which they haven’t for a number of years.

MS. IFILL: Not like we are. (Laughter.)

MR. BALZ: And so in many ways, this may look like a more typical campaign week than a traditional convention week. And I think that’s one of the problems for the Romney campaign is that they can do a lot of things, but will it just get kind of mashed together with whatever Vice President Biden says or whatever President Obama says.

MS. IFILL: What are you watching for, John, this week?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, I’m watching to see how much they can put – not new clothes on Mitt Romney, but how much they can show him as who he is, because, of course, if they got too far, what the Obama campaign is trying to do is say, any – you know, in 1992, Bill Clinton had similar problems to the kind Mitt Romney has and they relaunched him at his convention. So this is a Democrat. You’re using Hollywood techniques to re-launch himself as the man from Hope. So the Democrats do this.

But now what the Democrats are trying to do is if you use Hollywood or Madison Avenue to try and make your candidate look better, it’s because your candidate doesn’t have a core. No, it’s just what you do. Now, the question though is: are the Democrats going to be able to say, if Mitt Romney appears as a person that’s different than the caricature, will they be able to say, well, that’s just a mask, it’s not the real thing?

Because what this week was about with Congressman Akin was about the idea that Mitt Romney says he’s going to fix the economy, but that’s a mask, say the Democrats. And behind that mask are a bunch of extreme people. That’s the boogeyman story they’re trying to tell. And so to the extent they can claim that this is all about a mask this week, they hope it sort of energizes that idea that behind the mask is something scary.

MS. WALTER: Well, and that’s what’s interesting about this convention too. This is the first convention that the tea party plays a part and you can see them – it’s reflected on the podium. You have a lot of those folks who were elected in 2010 who make their debut.

What are they going to say to that point about trying to make this look like a party that can reach out beyond just the core of the base? And we even have somebody who hasn’t even been elected yet but is the new tea party rising star, Ted Cruz from Texas, gets a prime speaking spot.

So I think that that’s really what I’m watching for too – how well does the tea party mesh with the old guard?

MS. IFILL: I’m kind of watching to see how all the people who ran against Mitt Romney and said all those means things in the primaries, how they keep their faces together at the convention. (Laughter.) How about you, Beth?

MS. REINHARD: Well, you know, conventions have long been used to sort of show the diversity of the party, even if they’re really not all that diverse. Republicans have been doing that for years and we’re going to see that again.

Now, to their credit, Republicans – the party has done a very good job of electing Hispanics. They have several prominent statewide Hispanics – Marco Rubio is a household name I think at this point. Amy mentioned Ted Cruz. They’ve got Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. Another governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval – they have all these Hispanic rising stars. But what are the numbers behind that for Romney? Not good.

MS. IFILL: Brief thought.

MR. BALZ: I’m very anxious to see Governor Christie and the keynote address later this week

MS. IFILL: Okay. I’m also looking forward to Governor Christie and to the keynote addresses and to see whether we can all survive it and then move on to Charlotte next week. Thank you everyone.

This was such a good conversation. We actually don’t want it to end so we’re going to keep talking online and taking questions from our audience here at the Palladium Theater in St. Pete. You don’t have to be here to join in. Just go online and you can watch the “Washington Week Election 2012 Town Hall” Florida edition.

Next week’s a big one. Judy Woodruff and I will anchor “NewsHour’s” comprehensive coverage of the Republican National Convention every night. Then, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, we’ll broadcast from the campus of UNC Charlotte.

Our sincere thanks go out to our friends here at St. Petersburg College and the staff at the Palladium Theater and also to our partners at WEDU Tampa. See you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night. (Applause.)