Shields and Brooks on the surprisingly tranquil GOP debate

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, well, let's continue the conversation about the week in politics.

Last night's GOP debate could have possibly been on PBS. It was definitely a different tone, a different vibe.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why do you think that was?

DAVID BROOKS, New York Times Columnist: Yes, Alistair Cooke as actually moderating it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I think it was because the other candidates decided, especially Marco Rubio, that if they go after Trump the way they were, personally, just in the gutter, that they end up hurting themselves. And I think there is some evidence for Rubio to that effect.

And so it was a more Rubio-style debate. And I thought he did well, because it was a substantive debate. It was more uplifting. And he did well, but not substantially well enough to change the nature of the race, I don't think.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Not for the first time observed that the campaigns — or campaigns are like parallel skiing.

That is, you're competing in Ohio, while your opponents are in Tampa, Florida, or Dearborn, Michigan, and a debate brings you all together. This is the chance for you to rearrange the standing, especially if you're behind.

And last night, there was none of that. I mean, rather than PBS, I would say it was C-SPAN subcommittee hearings on the Subcommittee on Weights and Measures. It was about that stimulating, instead of the past debates, which have been like the housewives of the Jersey Shore, and you turn them on expecting for someone to throw a household appliance at the other.

And I think — to some degree, I think David's right. They found out that it didn't work. It has worked for Donald Trump, but it doesn't work to be a mini-Trump, as Marco Rubio proved. But I think, Hari, that may be the opening admission, acknowledgment that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee, because if you pass up a chance to really take a shot and to try and change the chemistry and the dynamic of the race — and you don't get that many opportunities, where everybody is watching at the same time.

I think the failure of people to engage Trump last night, almost an admission, may be the beginning of the concession.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let's talk a little bit about what's at stake coming up Tuesday with Ohio and Florida, two big otherwise general battleground states.

Yesterday, there were comments made on stage by Donald Trump saying, look, two of us have the possibility here, two of us don't.

Is that basically the case in terms of Governor Kasich and Marco Rubio? If they don't win their home states, do they pack up?

DAVID BROOKS: Rubio probably does.

You know, if they win their home states, then Donald Trump has to get nearly 60 percent of the remaining delegates, or nearly 70 percent of the remaining delegates, and that's a tall order.

And so if they win there , if Kasich and Rubio win, then we're looking at going into the convention without at least a clear nominee. If they lose, I think Rubio probably has to get out. You get the sense, just the vibe this week that the air is a little popping out of his campaign, a bad, really bad event in the football stadium, and just a lot of Republicans sort of walking away.

Kasich, on the other hand, maybe because he started lower, he's still got some energy around his campaign. And so I think he can lose and hang in there. If it was he, Cruz and Trump, Kasich was suddenly — a lot of people might go to him.

If Trump wins them both, then he will probably win them all on Tuesday. And it's just the biggest day of the season. And then you would have to think he's probably the nominee.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, John Kasich is an interesting one.

He's run a positive campaign, the governor of Ohio, and has not got into the back and forth and the insult exchange that has dominated most of the Republican debates. For the first time, Donald Trump is running an anti-Kasich commercial in Ohio, and it will be interesting to see what John Kasich does in the next few days between now and then.

Does he take it in just passive, in pacifist fashion, or does he hit back? It's obviously an invitation. Trump wants to win Ohio. What he has going for him right now is Urban Meyer, the coach at Ohio State, perhaps the most — football coach at Ohio State — perhaps the most popular figure in the state.

If it isn't an endorsement, it's certainly an embrace, a TV spot that he's cut with John Kasich and John Kasich's family, speaking very glowingly of qualities John Kasich's mother had not been aware he had probably before.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does John Kasich go into the convention — let's — there's probably mathematically not a way that he's going to outscore Trump and Cruz in terms of delegates.

But when he goes into that convention, what does he do there? Is this a matter of saying, hey, it's open and I think I'm still a viable candidate, and, by that time, people will see me as the guy that they want to nominate?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, let's play it out.

If Trump doesn't have a majority of the delegates, then I think there will be — and they can sort of rewrite the rules. I think there will be a period pre-nominate — pre-convention where the candidates will be going after the delegates, Republican, and saying, commit, commit, commit, commit to me.

And they are going to try, all the candidates, to win those delegates over. And then it just becomes a bidding war. And it will all be quiet. And then they will try to commit before we even get to the convention. And I suspect most of the delegates will lie and they will say, yes, Mr. Trump, I'm with you, yes, Mr. Cruz, I'm with you, too.

And so then it's all — then we don't know what happens. Then it's complete chaos.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know how John Kasich goes after Ohio.

I mean, I don't know where he mounts a campaign that makes him a competitor, a serious challenger for the nomination. I mean, he can certainly go to the convention, which is in Cleveland, and having carried Ohio, if he does so. That's not unimpressive by any means.

But if Trump is within 100 delegates of the nomination, he will get them. I have seen candidates. Candidates get 100 delegates, 100 people who want to be — they know that your — chance to be the next president of the United States or certainly the nominee of your party. And they want to be in the good side of such a nominee. I have just — I have seen it in the past.

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe with 100, but Trump is a unique candidate.

There is more opposition to Trump. I have just felt it all week, so many people. You go to them, some members of Congress, some just activists.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And you say, could you support Trump? And they say, I just couldn't. I just couldn't pull the lever.

And so there's — he's unique in that regard.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let's talk a little bit about the other side.

Why, Mark, is this race on the Democratic side still continuing? I mean, conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton would have a formidable lead, she would be the clear and distant choice, but, in cases like Michigan, not so.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

I mean, when — a Sanders person pointed out to me, you take out the red states of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, and Bernie is doing pretty darn well. I mean, that's where Secretary Clinton has run up the score, and done so well with large African-American votes in those states.

But Bernie — Bernie Sanders was billed as being 21 points behind in the polling. The primary polling has brought a new respectability to astrology.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: It was so wrong in Michigan.

But I just think you have to come back. It's not the messenger. He's not a charismatic guy that bobby-soxers are swooning in front of. It's the message. And you can see it. Now, for the first time, you see Republican voters in the exit polls, in addition to Democrats, saying that they oppose free trade.

They see free trade as outsourcing of jobs. They see it as offshoring, so not in their economic and family's interest. So, Bernie — it's Bernie's message.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Even John Kasich was sounding like Dick Gephardt on trade and the issues. The whole debate has shifted over on that side. I think it's also her weakness as a candidate.

She sometimes has a good message, but, on attack, we were reminded this week she's really not good. She just attacks wildly, without focus, and I think unpersuasively.

I — the one thing I really like that she did this week was confess the vulnerability: I'm not my husband. I'm not Barack Obama. I'm not a politician like them.

MARK SHIELDS: As politically gifted. That's right, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, just not as politically gifted as those guys.

And I think that's a true thing, but also a nice and honest way to approach the American people.

MARK SHIELDS: That's a good point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, New York Times columnist David Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, thanks so much for joining us.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Hari.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you can get Mark and David delivered to your inbox every Friday. Sign up for "NewsHour"'s politics e-mails by clicking the Subscribe icon on our home page. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.