Political reporter Jonathan Martin

POLITICO’s senior political reporter examines the “topsy-turvy” GOP presidential primary season.

Jonathan Martin has been POLITICO’s senior political reporter since its launch in 2007 and covers national politics with a focus on the upcoming 2012 presidential election. He covered the 2010 mid-terms, spent two years on the 2008 presidential campaign trail and was on the White House beat, travelling with the president for the first year of the Obama administration. Martin was previously a staff writer for National Journal, where he helped launch the “On Call” blog, and also worked at National Review, where he wrote about the aftermath of the 2006 election.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Jonathan Martin is a senior political reporter at “Politico” following his time covering politics for “The Hotline” and “The National Review.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Jonathan, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time, sir.

Jonathan Martin: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking about Mitt Romney and this victory in Maine over the weekend. Simple question – what does it mean that he won Maine?

Martin: Well, I think if he hadn’t won Maine it would be a bigger story, and he narrowly edged out Ron Paul there, Tavis, on Saturday night.

I think what that victory does for him is it sort of stops the bleeding a little bit after those tough losses that he had last Tuesday in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.

To get a victory, any victory at all, as he did in Maine helps him out just in terms of perception. Now, a bunch of national polls have come out in the last couple of days here showing that Santorum is really moving now and is in contention with Romney, but again, getting that victory in Maine does him help sort of stabilize some. The big question now is what’s going to happen in Michigan here two weeks from now, Tavis.

The state where Romney grew up, the state where his father was the governor. Is Santorum really going to be a competitor there and can he actually win that state? I tell you, if Santorum wins Michigan, this race is really going to be turned on its head.

Tavis: I’ll come back to that in just a second, Jonathan, but since we’re talking about Santorum and Romney being the two frontrunners, it is interesting, just a few days ago, literally, it wasn’t Romney and Santorum and it was Romney and Gingrich, and now we see -

Martin: Right.

Tavis: – now we see “The National Review” online calling for Gingrich to get out of the race and leave it to Santorum to carry the torch for conservatives. What a difference a matter of days makes. How is it possible that they’re asking Gingrich to get out and let Santorum, again, carry the torch here? (Laughter)

Martin: Well, I think part of that is because the editors over there are much more fond of Santorum than they are Gingrich, (laughter) so I think there’s some home cooking at work.

But look, I think it’s also because of what took place last Tuesday, where you had, on one day, three states. Now granted, those states weren’t binding in terms of the arcane delegate math, but you had Santorum win cleanly in those three states over Romney, and then you see him move now in some of these polls.

So you’ve got some folks who are pro-Santorum or at least more pro-Santorum than they are pro-Newt, who are saying let him carry the torch. I will tell you privately, you talk to the Santorum folks and they really want this thing to be a one-on-one race.

They really want to get Newt out of the race. They want to get a clean shot here at Romney. They know it’s probably not going to happen until after Super Tuesday, the first Tuesday in March, but they really want to get this thing down to a Romney-Santorum race, because in their minds it’s going to be really hard for Romney to win this thing if there’s only one conservative alternative to him.

Tavis: Tell me why I should not believe that the only reason why Santorum is having this kind of burst at the moment is because there are still so many people in the Republican Party who want anybody but Romney, so that it’s not about his appeal, it’s not about his intellect.

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: It’s not about anything other than the fact that it’s an anti-Romney vote. Tell me why I should not believe that, and once you answer that, we’ll go a little deeper here.

Martin: Well, I’m not going to totally disabuse you of that notion, Tavis. You’re too smart for me to try and do that. But I do think that Santorum, in his own right, does have appeal with cultural conservatives in the party because of his long years of laboring in the vineyards when it comes to issues like abortion, issues like gay rights, his sort of role in the ’90s and the earlier part of 2000.

So I think he does have a following in the party based upon what he did, but you’re right – there’s no question this is overwhelmingly an issue of who can we find that’s not named Mitt Romney.

Tavis: What do you make, having covered this race, what do you make of the fact that Santorum is still hanging around? This guy was on life support a couple of time.

Martin: It’s remarkable.

Tavis: Yeah, it is remarkable. How has he done this? So let me just – you’re right, you were right not to try to disabuse me, because I wouldn’t have gone for it anyway, respectfully. (Laughter) So let me take your argument. Let me take your argument. So Santorum is in the race because he does have some appeal. What is that appeal?

Martin: Yes.

Tavis: What is that appeal?

Martin: Well, the appeal is rooted in the fact that he is, for a lot of cultural conservatives, a lot of folks who care passionately and chiefly about the issue of abortion, who are strong conservative Catholics, who are in the homeschooling movement. He does have appeal within those blocs that make up an important coalition in the Republican Party.

Now, there’s no question that the core of his appeal right now is the fact that he is seen as the latest and most viable non-Romney, but you can’t totally say it’s only because he is brand X to Romney’s brand Y. There is some appeal there in his own right.

But Tavis, you touch on, I think, an important point here, and that is a lot of us, if we were betting, would lose a lot of money in this race, because this thing has been so topsy-turvy going back to a year ago. How many different candidates have we gone through in that period of time? We all thought that it could never get better than 2008, when we had that epic Obama-Clinton race.

Well, it isn’t quite the same as that, but in terms of just surprises and in terms of unpredictability, this is not a bad race at all, Tavis.

Tavis: How has, to the extent that it has – and I’m not sure it has; you tell me – to the extent that it has, how has the timing of the president’s, shall we say, Catholic contraceptive issue, aided and abetted Mr. Santorum?

Martin: It’s a great point. It’s been extremely helpful to him that I think both that issue, chiefly, and to a lesser degree the federal court ruling on gay marriage in California, came when they did, because right when Santorum was sort of getting back into the groove, and the fact that he could seize on that and say this administration and this Democratic Party is trying to lead a cultural war a certain way, I think helps Santorum and combined with the improving economic numbers, which of course is Romney’s biggest issue, is the fact that he can do the economy and handle the economy, it’s been nicely timed here for Santorum.

Especially going into Michigan. Michigan, as you know, is on the Republican side, a very conservative state, a lot of Catholics there. A very robust anti-abortion community. So I think the reemergence of the culture wars going into Michigan could really be very advantageous for Santorum.

Tavis: I was just about to ask how likely it is that Mitt Romney could, in fact, lose his home state of Michigan, and then I’m reminded that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee.

Martin: Right. (Laughter)

Tavis: So is it really possible that he could lose Michigan?

Martin: Well, I think it’s possible that he could lose. There have been some polling that’s come out showing Santorum up pretty significantly. I wouldn’t put much stock in that. I think it’s going to be a real competitive race there.

I think if the Michigan race was being held today, the election was today there, that Santorum could pull it out. With two weeks’ time, Romney’s organization and financial resources could really take this thing away from Santorum there.

But again, it really depends on a lot of factors here, including how much relevance does Newt have left, how much of a factor is Newt? Is he going to be getting 16 or 17 percent or is he getting 9 or 10 percent?

I think if we know the answer to that, we’ll have a better feel for what happens there with Santorum and with Romney. Go ahead.

Tavis: I was about to ask, how much of this Republican infighting – not how much, let me rephrase that.

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: What does this Republican infighting say about Mitt Romney and his chances to win the nomination, and for that matter beat Barack Obama? What does this infighting say about him, and question two, what does it say about the Republican Party?

Martin: I think in terms of what it says about him, it says that he is a way frontrunner and is somebody who draws support that he does because he is seen as A, strong on the economy, and B, strong in terms of being a candidate who could take on President Obama in the fall.

So I think the fact that he is having this drawn-out primary I think does undermine point B there, that he is going to be this strong general election candidate. If he is having trouble fending off some folks that frankly had their heyday in the Republican Party a few years ago, then that’s not a good indicator for his strength against the incumbent president of the United States.

And Tavis, in terms of what it says about the current state of the GOP, this is a party that has really moved to the right since 2008. There is no way John McCain would get the nomination today of the Republican Party. He was lucky to get it in 2008 because of a lot of bounces that went his way. I think he’d be hard-pressed to get it now in this sort of Tea Party era GOP.

It’s a much more pure doctrinaire party and I think that’s the challenge Romney is having here, is that they want somebody that’s going to be a down-the-line conservative, and he is having trouble making the case that he sort of meets that purity test.

Tavis: Why did not the Obama campaign draw a line in the sand and say, “We are not going to encourage, we’re not going to play this Super PAC game? They have to know that Romney, if he’s the nominee, is not going to be the strongest challenger.

They don’t want to underestimate the guy, but couldn’t they have drawn a line in the sand in the name of saving our democracy as we know it? The president stands up a year ago and criticized the Supreme Court sitting on the front row of his State of the Union speech; a year later he does a 180 on Super PAC money.

Why not, again, draw a line in the sand that says I am not going to encourage this, I’m not going to play this game, and if I go down, I go down?

My legacy will be that I am going to do something, again, to save our democracy by getting serious about -

Martin: Right.

Tavis: You see where I’m going with this. Why didn’t they draw that line in the sand, seeing that they’re up against a weak candidate?

Martin: Here’s the bet – that voters don’t care enough about campaign process and campaign money to hold him accountable for changing his stance on the issue. That there is more to be gained by doing a wink and nod to your party’s donors and saying, “Yes, you guys can seed these Super PACs on our side so we can go toe-to-toe with the opposition when it comes to this outside money.”

They just don’t think voters are going to make them pay a price for sort of inside baseball campaign mechanics in terms of who’s funding the TV ads. That’s the bet.

Tavis: So it’s a calculated decision and not one based upon the principle of the fact that we need to get money out of our politics, we need to clean up our campaign system, we need to save our democracy.

Forget all of that – it’s just that we don’t think voters care and we’re going to do it anyway and we’re going to win.

Martin: Well, because the other side’s doing it, we can’t let them do it to us; we have to match them dollar for dollar.

Tavis: Wow. Again, I’m still unconvinced, but I appreciate (laughter) your -

Martin: I’m trying to explain the best I can.

Tavis: Jonathan Martin is, of course, a senior political reporter for “Politico.” Honored to have him on the program. Jonathan, thanks for your time, sir.

Martin: Thank you, Tavis. Enjoyed it.

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Last modified: February 15, 2012 at 4:55 pm