MS. IFILL: Hello and welcome to St. Louis on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, where we will tell you all you need to know, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: We cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama. We’re not going to have four more years of Barack Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We tried what they’re selling. We tried for a decade. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.
MS. IFILL: Countdown to Election Day. Ads crowd the airwaves, the big debates loom. Forty days to go as the candidates drill down on the economy.
PRES. OBAMA: He thinks that if we just spend another $5 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, all our problems are going to go away.
MR. ROMNEY: His plan is another stimulus. How did that first one go, all right? About $800 billion – how much of that did you get, all right? Well, it was cash for clunkers. Did you get help from that?
MS. IFILL: And they duke it out on foreign policy.
PRES. OBAMA: I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because in a lot of these places, that one organizing principle has been Islam.
MR. ROMNEY: He said the developments of the Middle East are bumps in the road. (Laughter.) Yes, that was my reaction. Bumps in the road? These are not bumps in the road. These are human lives.
MS. IFILL: The candidates, the polls, the issues, the voters. We are in the heartland tonight. What’s resonating?
Covering the week, Charles Babington of the Associated Press; Nia-Malika Henderson of the Washington Post; Jim Tankersley of National Journal; and Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times.
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.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Hello, St. Louis. Welcome. Thank you all for coming out. And thanks for joining us here at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
The presidential race is shifting before our eyes and it’s all about the numbers. Mitt Romney is working to regain lost ground in a half dozen battleground states. Barack Obama is pouring millions of dollars into ads designed to seal the deal. Voters are already heading to the polls in more than two dozen states and both sides are bracing for the unexpected, especially when it comes to the economy. And that’s with less than six weeks left.
If the election were held today, what would we expect, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: I think if the election were held today – and, in fact, it is being held today – it’s a question that Governor Romney’s campaign always dismissed saying it’s not being held today, but, in fact, people are voting already. I was in Iowa yesterday. Thousands of people have already voted in almost – at the end of this month, 30 states will have voted.
So if the election was today, President Obama has command of this race. In battleground states across the country from Nevada in the west, across the middle of the country up to New Hampshire and down to Florida, in nine battleground states, the president is in command of this race and that’s not just an assessment of the polls, although he has an advantage in the polls. It’s the assessment of Republicans and the Romney campaign as well.
But that does not mean this race is over. There are a lot of things to happen and the next thing is the debate next week. But there is a recognition inside the Romney campaign that Governor Romney needs to sort of find it within him to make a better argument, a clearer argument through advertising and other things. And I think we still have time to see him do that.
MS. IFILL: Chuck, as you start to sort through – and we’re talking dozens of polls that we’ve been all reading and consuming for the last couple of weeks to the point that people say, what are we – should we believe these polls, especially when they make such a uniform turn. What are you hearing about that?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, the polls are all moving in the direction that Jeff talked about, so you can’t – there might be this type of fault or that type of fault with any one poll, but you can’t ignore the cumulative direction of all these polls. And believe me, a lot of people, especially in the Romney camp are trying to figure out what has happened. And we’ve all been working on that story.
One thing that we think has happened is that a lot of people – a lot of Americans started tuning in right around the time of the conventions. And two things went on then. Romney largely took his advertisements off the air. He thought it would not be a very good time to air ads. And Obama kept his ads very heavily on TV.
And then the two back-to-back conventions, the general consensus was that the Democrats had a better convention. You can argue why it was. Certainly Bill Clinton’s speech was probably maybe the high point of either of the two conventions. But the verdict of the voters or the American people was that the Democrats had a better convention. And it seemed like that’s about the time that these polls started opening up.
MS. IFILL: Nia, walk us through the map, because when we say battleground states – and Jeff talks about Nevada back to the east – there is a lot in between there. What are the states that you’re charting as you try to figure out the direction of this race?
MS. HENDERSON: That’s right. I mean, you’re looking at Florida. You’re looking at Virginia. You’re looking at Ohio. I think it’s very telling that at this point the Romney campaign isn’t even playing in a state like Michigan and a state like Pennsylvania. He was there I think yesterday, or today, and said – he thought he would be competitive there. He thought he would win. No ads so far up there for his campaign.
But if you look at this one state that he seems to be doing well in, it’s North Carolina. That’s a state that Obama was able to win in 2008 by about 14,000 votes. Polls show –
MS. IFILL: That’s really narrow.
MS. HENDERSON: That’s really narrow. A state like Indiana, obviously, that was a state that Obama won last time. That’s pretty much off the map. Romney will win that.
But I think everyone is surprised that all of these polls are pretty much uniformly saying that Obama is in command of the lead. Chuck, of course, talked about the fact that they in some ways lost August.
In some ways I think, one reading of this is that they lost the summer, the Romney campaign. If you look at what Obama did, they really I think (judged ?) the start of this race was in May – that’s when they started going up with very tough ads, really framing Romney as a plutocrat, as someone who wasn’t in touch with the middle class and the tax issue, him releasing his tax returns. He was always on the defensive. So now he’s got a lot of ground to make up with this debate.
MS. IFILL: Jim, is there an argument to be made that there is a policy shift that it’s going on in America’s mind as well? It’s not just a good speech or a good piece of positioning, but actually the people are looking at their choices differently now?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes. I think maybe the way to think about this best is to not just look at polling data but also economic data. And right now we’re seeing this surge of optimism across the country.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Consumer confidence is up. Small business confidence is up. These are – even some financial market participant indices of optimism are up. So this would suggest that people are starting to feel a little better about this recovery, a lot of interesting questions as to why because the data don’t really support that.
MS. IFILL: No.
MR. TANKERSLEY: But a couple of things that I think are important to point out. The first is we’ve been having a slow middling recovery for like three years now and people have gotten used to it. So anything, it’s like being a lukewarm bath – any little drop of hot water makes you think that maybe, hey, it’s going to heat up entirely.
MS. IFILL: Wait, but the flipside of that is that’s how frogs drown, right? (Laughter.) You heat it up a little bit more until –
MR. TANKERSLEY: I think you just got a Romney campaign commercial. (Laughter.) But the other – but the part of that is, is that if you are starting to see some real uptick in your personal finances, which Americans are seeing – they’re paying off credit card debt; the housing market is starting to get a little bit better – even if growth is not picking up and the jobs numbers are nearly as good as we would like them to be, we are seeing small but measurable improvements in the parts of people’s lives where they really pay attention to.
MS. IFILL: Both candidates said an interesting thing this week. They came out with ads in which they looked you in the eye, they looked straight to camera and they tried to make a case. It’s usually the case that you hear being made far later in the campaign. Let’s listen to a little bit of both of them and then come back on the other side.
PRES. OBAMA: During the last weeks of this campaign, there will be debates, speeches and more ads. It’s time for a new economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong, thriving middle class. Read my plan, compare it to Governor Romney’s and decide for yourself.
MR. ROMNEY: Too many Americans are struggling to find work in today’s economy. Too many of those who are working are living paycheck to paycheck trying to make falling incomes meet rising prices for food and gas. More Americans are living in poverty than when President Obama took office. And 15 million more are on food stamps.
MS. IFILL: Now, it’s interesting to me, Jim – that picks up on what you were just saying which is this idea that people actually feel pretty good about the economy, but here we have the Democrat talking about – I mean, the Republican talking about poverty and food stamps and the Democrat preaching optimism. What’s up with that?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, the Democrat is in charge right now and that’s a big difference. I think if the roles were reversed, you’d hear a lot of different messages, although some things would be the same.
President Obama has talked about the middle class ad nauseam throughout the summer. And if you talk to the Obama campaign, they think that’s a big part of why their economic messages resonated so much because the middle class has been in trouble for a long time in this country, not just since the recession.
The flipside of that is Governor Romney is having to try still to sell voters on the idea that things are so bad that they can’t possibly reelect the incumbent. But that was – the strategy and the thought from the beginning from Republicans was, well, they started from that position that voters just weren’t going to be able to reelect this guy and that they were going to win because of that. So the fact that they have to make that case now says something about the way people have shifted.
MS. IFILL: Is there a political reason too, Chuck, why they would make that case now?
MR. BABINGTON: Yes. As Jim pointed out, from the very beginning, Romney’s strategy was that essentially Obama would sink of the weight of the economy. It wasn’t an implausible idea and it still might work. Unemployment has been above 8 percent for 43 straight months now.
But what these polls are showing is it is not getting him over the line. And I think the Republican are somewhat taken aback by that. And they don’t seem to have as strong a plan B as perhaps in retrospect they wished that they had had.
So since the public does not seem ready to fire Obama because of the economy, at least not yet, there’s a sense that Romney has not shown enough detail about how he would make it better. And that’s why you saw President Obama almost taunting him in that ad where he says, look at my plan. I’m the one with the details. That’s a very interesting comment for him to make.
MS. IFILL: That’s what we know. Let’s talk a little bit, Jeff, about what could happen. We heard the president talk about bumps in the road and that was an allusion to the fact that foreign policy can knock this whole thing, theoretically, off course or at least could hurt.
MR. ZELENY: It could. If you talk to the president’s reelection advisors in Chicago, that is the top thing that worries them about things that are outside of their control. They can control a lot or at least they can control the message of a lot of what’s going on domestically.
But foreign affairs is a problem for them, a potential problem for them. And we’ve seen it this week. Look at the attacks in Libya and Benghazi. This storyline is continuing. If Congress was in session right now –
MS. IFILL: In part because their explanation has shifted.
MR. ZELENY: The White House has been all over the map on this. For several days, the White House from the podium, White House press secretary Jay Carney, as well as administration officials across the board were instant that the attacks in Libya were caused because of this video that was out on the Internet. Well, that turns out to probably not be the case. They finally acknowledged somewhat reluctantly that it actually was an act of terrorism.
If Congress was in session right now, I think this would be a real potential problem for this administration, the president because there would be hearings. There would sort of a concerted effort to find out what happened in Benghazi.
As of now, I’m not sure that that will sort of turn the election probably because Governor Romney has been a bit ham-handed how he has reacted to this, but I think that is one of the wild cards here in this race that the Obama administration, the president cannot control.
MS. IFILL: Except that the upside is he’s the guy with the job. It’s hard to unseat an incumbent. The downside is he’s the guy with the job, Nia.
MS. HENDERSON: That’s right. And you saw Romney try to come out pretty early when this happened. And he did make those ham-handed comments seeming to suggest that Obama was siding with the attackers. And he tried to pick this up again with the bumps in the road comment.
I think one of the problems that Romney has had all along with his campaign is he does seem to go from pillar to post in terms of picking up on themes, but he doesn’t necessarily carry them through. And he hasn’t really been able to make a case that he could do a better job in handling problems in the Middle East. I think most Americans know that it’s incredibly complicated, incredibly complicated situation over there. And I don’t think he has yet made a compelling argument that he could do a better job handling that.
MS. IFILL: I also wonder – one of the things that’s out of control – out of the president’s control is Congress and this fiscal cliff dilemma we’re about to face where by the end of the year they don’t do something, there are going to be across-the-board budget cuts. Is that something which has seeped in yet or has any factor, Jim, in the way voters are wrestling with this? Who’s in charge?
MR. TANKERSLEY: It doesn’t appear to be affecting voters, although it does appear to be affecting companies. There is a CEO survey out this week and they are much more bearish on the economy than consumers are in terms of the optimism. And one of the possible explanations for that is that they are much more tuned in to the possibility that a bunch of taxes will go up and a bunch of federal spending will go away after the 1st of the year if they can’t fix the fiscal cliff.
I doubt that it’s going to get to be that big of an issue in most voters’ minds. Someone here in Missouri or in Ohio is going to have a hard time sort of connecting those dots I think before November.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, let’s talk about what happens next because we’re at the edge of our seats waiting for next week’s first presidential debate because all these questions that we keep raising, all these unanswered what’s going to affect the outcome questions and are these polls really telling us where America is might begin to be answered at that debate. Are we raising expectations too high, Chuck?
MR. BABINGTON: Debates are a great – they’re a great institution. I’m so glad that we have this format now where you have three of them structured the way they are. There’s a question about how much they can move – as Jeff said, a lot of people have already voted.
I will say this – I do think that this notion that Barack Obama is a master debater may not quite be right. His best format is speaking to a large crowd from a podium or from a microphone. He obviously is a very good debater. Both these men are very, very smart. They’re very well prepared and all that.
But if you look at some of the Republican primary debates, Mitt Romney actually did very well sometimes. So I think if you do go into this with the notion – oh, gee, Obama is so great at communicating, he’s going to blow this guy away, you might be surprised.
MS. IFILL: Is it possible to even compare it? Those Republican primary debates were eight people on the stage and they were all trying to score a little points and yell at the moderator as I recall too often, which we moderators hate. But the question is: who is really the better debater? Is it all spin at this point, which is what they do?
MR. ZELENY: I think it is all spin. I mean, you’re seeing – because there’s not that much going on. There’s a bit of a vacuum in the race now. Both sides are saying, oh, he’s the better debater. The Romney campaign is – actually has – Governor Romney has spent a lot of time practicing for debates. A couple of weekends ago he did five full mock debates over a 48-hour period.
MS. IFILL: Five?
MR. ZELENY: Five of them. And he has lined up Senator Rob Portman from Ohio to play Barack Obama, the same person who played Senator Obama four years ago. And he is really – advisors say he’s really letting him have it. So I think that the expectations – we’ll find out what happens on Wednesday but – again –
MS. IFILL: Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall in those debate prep sessions?
MR. ZELENY: No doubt about it. But it is one of the final times for Governor Romney to sort of reset the race or get people to take a second look at him. A lot of people, millions of people will be watching that debate. So I think it’s way too early to judge anything. It’s probably even premature to be voting without watching this.
But I was interviewing voters yesterday in Iowa and said, look, we know who we’re voting for. We can watch the debate without having that hang over our heads.
MS. IFILL: Well, on that point, a lot of people – there are only a very narrow (slip ?) of people who say they’re undecided so it’s not surprising in some ways that people don’t use the debates maybe to decide but they use it for something else.
MS. HENDERSON: That’s right. I mean, I think most people will go into these debates – if you like, Obama, you’ll think he did a great job. If you like Romney, you’ll think he did a great job. Romney has said that he wants to use the debates as a clarifying moment. He thinks that the Obama campaign, the Democrats, have really waged an inaccurate campaign –
MS. IFILL: He’s been telegraphing his punches on that.
MS. HENDERSON: Yes. He has said that – he also has said that I think he expects Obama to tell more untruths on the debate stage. So he really thinks this is a real opportunity for him. Again, there’s all sorts of congratulations from the Romney campaign about what a great debater Obama is. And I think in some ways, they’re probably mediocre debaters. Romney has made some big mistakes and big flops – the $10,000 bet that he made against Perry in that debate, Obama’s likeable enough moment with Hillary Clinton. So we’ll have to see.
MS. IFILL: Think of the debates you’ve covered, Chuck. I’m not just saying that because you probably covered more than the rest of –
MR. BABINGTON: I’m old.
MS. IFILL: Because you’re old. Okay. (Laughter.) Yes. Right. As if. Think of the ones you’ve covered. Which ones that you’ve covered would you say have made a difference in the outcome?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, I’m actually not this old. (Laughter.) But I will say, clearly, when Gerald Ford said that the – Poland I think was the country – not under Soviet domination. That clearly was one of those memorable types of gaffes. And we all remember the big putdown from Lloyd Bentsen of Dan Quayle.
But, you know, Gwen, in all honesty, I think most of these debates they don’t really reset. They don’t have a moment where you just say, gosh, that guy is clearly better than the other guy. And, again, that’s largely because they both go in so well prepared, it’s very hard to surprise them or anything like that. These are smart people. They’re not very likely to make mistakes.
So I think Romney’s great hope is that he can use these three debates to reset the campaign. I think it’s a steep hill for him to climb.
MS. IFILL: Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: I think that the debates – if you think back to the 2000 campaign, Al Gore may have sort of won the debates, but George W. Bush exceeded his expectations and he ended up doing fine. Four years later, John Kerry probably technically, at least in the eyes of some people – I was at all the debates – probably was a better debater, but it didn’t necessarily matter.
I think Chuck’s probably right. It is difficult to reset it, but there are still a lot of voters who are completely fine with a new president I think, even some people who voted for President Obama.
I was talking to a voter a week ago in Wisconsin and he said he voted for Obama four years ago but he’s not sure now at all. He’s open to voting for Governor Romney if he knew what he stands for. He wasn’t sure what his message is. So I think that is Governor Romney’s sort of charge here is to put some meat on the bones of what he stands for on his policies. And I think people are open to that.
MS. IFILL: Jim, imagine yourself as a debate moderator this coming week. Just put on your Jim Lehrer mask and go with it for a moment. What kind of questions would you like to see these candidates address that will actually speak to the concerns you hear voters have about the future of this country.
MR. TANKERSLEY: I think there’s one question. And I don’t want to tell Jim Lehrer what to do, but I’m about to tell Jim Lehrer what to do. I would ask it in different ways for the entire debate.
And it is: how in the world is what you’re proposing enough to get this country back to work, because neither of these candidates has a plan that is anywhere close, even by their own party’s ideology to getting the country back to full employment. And I want him to push them on that.
And that would be an opportunity for the president to explain what it is about his plan that’s not just incremental and another four years of lukewarm bath water. It would be an opportunity for Governor Romney to finally make that pitch to voters – hey, I have a plan that’s different, that’s something we haven’t tried before, that is going to be new. It will be like a Reaganesque moment for him to instill confidence. And it would be most importantly important to all these 13 million in America right now who are out of work.
MS. IFILL: Chuck, what do you think about that? What kind of question do you think might crystallize this debate?
MR. BABINGTON: I think if I would ask Barack Obama, you’ve been in for four years, you say you can make things better, why didn’t you make things better in the four years that you’ve had? What can you do differently, especially given that Congress is not going to become pro-Democratic?
And I would ask Mitt Romney: where are the details? You say that you can get us on the track towards a balanced budget and at the same time cut taxes and increase military spending. How can this possibly ad up? You say you’re going to get rid of some of these tax loopholes or breaks. Name three of them right here and now. That’s what I’d ask him.
MS. HENDERSON: On Obamacare, for Romney, if he gets rid of that, what does he replace it with? How are his plans different from a lot of the things that Bush put into place?
And I think for Obama going forward, how does he work with this new Congress? What would be different going forward in terms of his relationship with Congress and how would he be able to push his agenda through?
MS. IFILL: Final word.
MR. ZELENY: Speaking of Congress, I think this is going to be an interesting thing to watch over the next five weeks. If Republicans continue to be sort of more agitated at how the Romney campaign is going, will the Super PACs – will Republicans shift their focus entirely from the presidential race to the Senate? Republicans want to win the Senate, and now it looks less likely than it did some six months ago, even a few months ago. So I think the Senate race is going to be – the battle for control of the Senate will become as important as the presidential race in the final days.
MS. IFILL: And in lots of ways it may play out right here in Missouri, where we have a suddenly competitive Senate race that we’ve seen a lot of folks who condemned the Republican nominee who are now coming back on board, other Republicans, because they see a chance at winning the Senate over. This is going to be so much fun.
Thank you all for joining us and thank you for listening in. It was such a good conversation we don’t want it to end. So we’re going to keep talking online and taking questions from our audience at the Touhill Performing Arts Center here in St. Louis. You don’t have to be here to join in though. Just go online and you can watch the “Washington Week Election 2012 Town Hall St. Louis” edition.
Our sincere thanks go out to our friends here at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the staff at the Touhill and also to our partners at Nine Network St. Louis.
Be sure to join Judy Woodruff and me next Wednesday night for live coverage of the first presidential debate moderated, as we said, by our own Jim Lehrer. That’s on air and streaming live at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
And we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night. (Applause.)