Above the campaign noise, candidates talk issues

GWEN IFILL: The push and pull of 2016 politics in recent weeks have devolved into name-calling, counterpunches and bitter accusation.

Lost in all of that, some of the candidates have actually been talking about policy, from taxes to foreign policy to income inequality.

We explore some of that and preview Wednesday's second big Republican debate this Politics Monday.

I'm joined by Susan Page of USA Today and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

Ladies, let's start by talking about Bernie Sanders, who today was at Liberty University, a conservative Christian school in South Carolina, and he was making the case that, in fact, the income inequality that he talks about in his speeches is actually a moral issue. Let's listen to a little bit of it.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: There is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, while at the same time the United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth.

GWEN IFILL: It should be said there was some pushback at Liberty, which, by the way, is Virginia, not South Carolina. There was some pushback, in which people said, well, what about abortion? We consider caring for children to also be about children, children's issues and equality issues.

So what was Bernie Sanders up to, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think this is such a smart thing. I think politicians are so wise to go to places that are not their natural audiences and make their case.

I mean, what could be more appealing, and what could we possibly need more in our politics than people who are willing to talk to people who disagree with them? He was making a — he did go there with a point to make, though. There are probably not six votes for Bernie Sanders in the student body at Liberty University, but he was making the case that caring for people, the biblical injunction to take care of the neediest among us, is something that applies to the case he's trying to make in terms of a liberal economic policy.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Yes.

And it's not just that he was willing to go into the lion's den, so to speak, somewhere that is not going to be naturally looking to vote for somebody like Bernie Sanders, but it also highlights this authenticity that Bernie Sanders is really taking and doing a lot with.

And I think it's part of the reason that you have seen him do so well in the polls, is that people see him as somebody that's really — he's got a message. He goes anywhere. He doesn't care where that is and gives that same message.

GWEN IFILL: He didn't back down.

AMY WALTER: And will not back down on any of that. And there is something that is incredibly appealing about that.

SUSAN PAGE: And he acknowledged their differences.

AMY WALTER: That's right. He said, we're not going to agree on…

SUSAN PAGE: He acknowledged that they differed on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. That doesn't mean that they can't have a conversation about the issues that face the country.

GWEN IFILL: And then it ended with a prayer with his interviewer on the Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish — he is Jewish — at a Christian university, praying for the future of the world. So, maybe that's the way it ought to be.

Let's move on to Hillary Clinton, who gave a speech today about sexual assault on campus, in which she's trying also to stay on policy. But even as she focuses on policy, on issues which draw attention to what she sees as her strengths, we see a new poll today. And in this new poll, it shows, in the past eight weeks, Hillary Clinton has dropped from 71 percent approval among Democratic women down to 42 percent.

That's a big drop. What's going on with Hillary Clinton?

AMY WALTER: Well, and that's why, this week, actually the next two weeks, are dubbed women for Hillary.

So this event on campus rape follows — she had an appearance with Ellen DeGeneres. She's talking about her speech she had in 1994 where she talked about women's rights being human rights at the U.N., and really trying to remind women voters about the fact that she is a historic candidate, would be obviously the first woman to be president.

Hillary Clinton has enjoyed the support of women without ever making the case for why it would be important to be a female candidate. But we're seeing here flashes of what we saw in 2008 as well, which is, one, it's difficult to make the case purely on a gender basis for why Hillary Clinton should be elected. She's not necessarily comfortable doing that, doesn't want to be just seen as a gender candidate.

And the second is that even female voters are looking for other — something else in the other candidates. This is where the authenticity, being different, being different on some of the issues in the way that Bernie Sanders…

GWEN IFILL: She clearly knows that she's in some sort of trouble.

I want to move to the Republicans, Susan, because we know that Trump has been the big shadow over all of this case. But we have seen Jeb Bush giving a speech about — about income — I mean, about taxes. We have seen Scott Walker talking about labor unions. We have actually seen these candidates trying to talk about these issues.

But one of the ones that seems to have taken hold, speaking of women voters, was with Carly Fiorina, who has been coming up somewhat in the polls, when Donald Trump said that — gave an interview to "Rolling Stone" in which he said: Look at that face. Would you vote for that face?

She responded with this ad, of which we will show you a little bit in part.

CARLY FIORINA, Republican Presidential Candidate: Look at this face and look at all of your faces, the face of leadership, the face of leadership in our party, the party of women's suffrage.

GWEN IFILL: And at end, she ends up saying, and this is what a 61-year-old face looks like, wrinkles and all.

Is this her attempt to go for the same folks that Hillary Clinton is also trying to go for?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, it's brilliant. I think it's like the best ad of the cycle, not that there have been so many, in that she took something that was meant as a slur and that she could have taken offense at and called him on for sexism, and said she turned it to her advantage and she made this very effective ad.

I will be very curious to see what she does in the debate Wednesday night, when she makes it on stage with the top tier of candidates. She has been a very interesting candidate, in that she sits in the outsider mold of the people who are doing well.

If you look at the top two Republicans in the ABC/Washington Post poll, who got 53 percent of the support of Republicans between them, they're both — neither of them have been elected anything ever, Trump and Dr. Carson. Add that — Fiorina, that, clearly, this is a year in which there is a willingness to consider folks that we would not traditionally have considered qualified to be considered for president.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the secret, perhaps, to out-Trumping Trump, my newest favorite phrase, by the way, which is that you find — you take the things he throws that you and turn it to the subject you want to talk about?

AMY WALTER: Well, we will see, I think, in this debate at how successful some candidates are.

I think you're right, that Carly Fiorina is really honing that message to be able to come back at Donald Trump. And I'm sure every single other candidate is trying to find that one really good turn of phrase to get back at him.

The hope is two things among Republicans, one, that he just sort of jumps the shark, to use a TV term, that he just — it just becomes something of a bore, that — his doing this over and over again. And the second is that they are going to turn it to their advantage, one, by saying, I have a cute quip to come back to you, but also we're going to talk about some of the policy issues, specifically calling Donald Trump out as not being true conservative, calling Donald Trump out for not really having any depth of policy.

GWEN IFILL: Even though there are no polls that seem to show that…

AMY WALTER: That that is actually working.

GWEN IFILL: That that is actually working.

AMY WALTER: One interesting thing aside, too, about the Carly ad, just to show the new era that we're in, in campaigns, that's actually a super PAC ad.

And the reason that you see she's not talking to the camera is because she can't. They can't coordinate, with the rules.

SUSAN PAGE: They can't "coordinate."

GWEN IFILL: "Coordinate." There's lot of air quotes this election year.

OK, so, quickly, what are you guys watching for in this debate? Who are you watching most closely and what would you like to see come out of it?

SUSAN PAGE: The lead in this debate is going to have Donald Trump's name in it. There's no way it doesn't. What does he do? What do others do to him?

And you know this idea that you can call him out on policy or say he has not been a consistent conservative, people don't care about that. They care that he's somebody who is going to break the china, get things done. They think the system is corrupt, the government doesn't work. Why not go with somebody as unexpected as Trump to shake things up?

AMY WALTER: Well, and that is the question, is that, will it last over time?

I think this is what voters are looking for today. Is that going to be the same thing they're looking for in October, in November, in December, as we start to get closer to voting time?

But I think I'm also looking to see if Scott Walker and Jeb Bush can improve their performances. They're both seen as sort of lackluster. They didn't really get a strong message out. It's not just about pushing back against Trump. It's showing who they are, why they want to be president.

GWEN IFILL: And whether Ben Carson can take advantage of this latest surge which he's also enjoying.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely true, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, Susan Page, as always.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.


GWEN IFILL: See you debate night.