Shields and Ponnuru on Christie endorsing Trump and the 10th GOP debate

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to Shields and Ponnuru. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review."

David Brooks is away.

And, welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Thank you, Judy.

RAMESH PONNURU, The National Review: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, hold that thought about the Democrats and about South Carolina. I want to ask you about that.

But, Mark, I have to start with the Donald Trump endorsement by Chris Christie today. What did you make of this, the timing of it, the fact of it?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, the old line of Speaker Tip O'Neill, who said all politics is local, all politics is personal.

Chris Christie, who was going to be the "tell it like it is" candidate in 2016, was eclipsed totally by Donald Trump, and blames his defeat, where he concentrated all his effort, energy, attention and resources in New Hampshire, where he finished sixth, he blames it on Marco Rubio's super PAC, which ran a negative ad on Christie as Christie was just starting to get some traction in that state which highlighted Chris Christie's physical embrace of the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who was bringing aid to the devastated state of New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, just prior to the election of 2012, and mentioned the nine credit lowering rating — the times that the state's credit rating had been lowered in Chris Christie's administration.

And he — it was really quite personal why he endorsed Donald Trump. He said he's known him and all the rest of it. I think that's essentially the reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying payback.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, Christie spoke about Rubio negatively almost as much as he spoke positively about Donald Trump today.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that the endorsement helps Chris — excuse me — helps Trump in two ways. It also helps Christie.

But it helps Trump in two ways. One is, it signals that it's OK for elected Republican officials to support him. And, in fact, right after he did, Maine's Governor Paul LePage, who had endorsed Christie, went ahead and endorsed Trump too.

And the second thing it does is, it takes the coverage away from questions about his university defrauding people, away from his hiring illegal immigrants, and puts it onto his momentum, which is where he needs it to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is all about last night's debate, which was a remarkable spectacle, Mark Shields.

I don't know that we have seen anything — I guess we haven't seen anything like it in this cycle.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you account for Rubio and Cruz finally coming out and going after Donald Trump?

MARK SHIELDS: Desperation.

Donald Trump now stands on the cusp of Super Tuesday. Just a little check of history, this in — the Southeastern Conference, SEC primaries, these are states that include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma.


MARK SHIELDS: Oklahoma and Tennessee.

But these states were all won by the previous winners of the Iowa caucus, Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, by one or both of them. They're states with large evangelical populations. There, cultural and religious candidates expect to do well.

We recall that this was going to be where Ted Cruz of Texas ran up the score.


MARK SHIELDS: And what do we find out is going on prior to the debate last night? That, in all these states, Donald Trump, the most aggressively secular candidate running in either party, is, in fact, leading.

So there had to be a sense of stopping him. The biggest winner of the night, in my judgment, were former President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, who honored their obligation to show up in their hometown at a time when they accepted expecting that their son Jeb would be one of the main competitors, and they still graciously showed up. And they just deserve…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We saw them seated in the back of the room.

MARK SHIELDS: They just deserve, I think, our admiration and respect.

But I just thought it was remarkable. I will just close by quickly saying Marco Rubio showed something that had been missing this entire campaign, humor. There had been no humor. It had been a humorless campaign in both sides. And I thought he really did it very well, in a natural way, comfortable in his own skin, and really put Donald Trump right back on his heels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it certainly was at the expense of Donald Trump.

Did Rubio damage Donald Trump last night with some of these very, very tough comments, Ramesh, about the fact that he inherited his money, what he did with so-called Trump University and on and on?

RAMESH PONNURU: Maybe even more surprising than how well Donald Trump has been doing in the Republican primaries has been that he has faced almost no real resistance in the debates or in the ad war so far.

And that ended last night, and I thought Senator Rubio did do a good job, and Senator Cruz did as well to a lesser extent, in pointing out all of the many vulnerabilities that Trump has on the questions of, does he really tell it like it is? Is he really on your side?

The question, of course, is, is it too late?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is it? What do you think?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, it's the — by drowning it out with the Christie endorsement, that, I think, shows you that the Trump people thought that it was a potential problem, because it's not as though Christie makes sense in terms of swaying voters in Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.


RAMESH PONNURU: That is because he is at risk of suffering in the polls everywhere because of this onslaught of attacks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying they did this to move the bad performance or not the strongest performance in the debate.

RAMESH PONNURU: Yes, I think the timing of it makes the most sense.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it was trying to change the story, no question about it.

But what was interesting, Judy, was that Marco Rubio, who had been terminally nervous the last time we had seen him in New Hampshire, not South Carolina, but New Hampshire, in suffering from chronic thirstiness and all the rest of it in that debate there, came on last night, and what he did was he out-Trumped Trump.

He bullied the bully. He used Trump's tactics, got right up in his face, used mocking humor, wouldn't let him finish a sentence, and really took Trump's game away from Trump, and, I mean, changed himself in the process.

But it does show you Trump's game plan is seen by even his adversaries as the winning game plan, that is, the New York values, in your face. Same to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does it help? Mark, does it help Marco Rubio? Does it hurt Donald Trump? Is it too late?

MARK SHIELDS: We will find out. We will find out, certainly, the early indication on that, on Tuesday, Judy.

But I just think you had — your perception of Marco Rubio had to change. I think your perception of Donald Trump had to change last night. I mean, this was Donald Trump on the defensive saying, when he was asked about the Trump University, I have won most of those lawsuits.

Now, that hardly sounds like somebody who's founding Amherst or Wesleyan or Notre Dame, saying with pride. So, I just — I thought he was very much on the defensive.

RAMESH PONNURU: When is the last time you heard a presidential candidate boast about being audited, as though that were a defense of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why he's not putting his tax returns out.

RAMESH PONNURU: Right. Exactly.

It was important for Rubio not to just land a punch on Trump in order to take him down. It was also to address this lingering concern that Republicans have that maybe he's not tough enough.


RAMESH PONNURU: So, I do think it doesn't just hurt Trump, but also helps Rubio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about Ted Cruz, though, because this is the one other Republican besides Donald Trump who has won a contest.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He won the Iowa caucuses. Marco Rubio hasn't won anything yet.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, everybody's saying Cruz has to win his home state of Texas. Do you agree with that?


JUDY WOODRUFF: What else does he need to do right now?

MARK SHIELDS: He has to win. Well, I think he has to win another state.

But you're right about Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio has yet to win anywhere. And he's, according to polls, trailing in his home state, where there have been already been, I found out today, 200,000 early ballots cast. And it's hard to believe…


MARK SHIELDS: And in Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, in Florida.

MARK SHIELDS: Already in Florida, which is not until the 15th.

And the speculation is that a pretty sizable proportion of those are Trump votes at this point. So, Donald Trump has changed the Republican electorate. He's increased it. He's increased it dramatically. He's brought people in.

And so Marco Rubio has to win somewhere. He certainly has to win in Florida, but — his home state. And I just think the same thing is true for John Kasich in his home state. If he's not going to win his home state, I think he will get out before losing his home state, which Rick Santorum, you will recall, did in 2012 before the Pennsylvania primary, which is — it's just an embarrassment to lose your home state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, where do you see the path for Cruz? And what about John Kasich?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, because of the calendar, Senator Cruz faces this home state test before Kasich and Rubio do.

So, if he loses Texas on Tuesday, then I think that it becomes very hard for him to stay in the race. He was supposed to do well in a lot of states on Tuesday…

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

RAMESH PONNURU: … but especially Texas would be a problem.

The stakes aren't quite as high for Rubio, but let's not forget, we're not just talking about momentum at this point. We're talking about actual delegates. And people do start to be — need to start winning some of these delegates.


MARK SHIELDS: If he wins Massachusetts and Alabama, he being Trump, that is quite an achievement.

And he's running ahead in both those states. Can you imagine two states more demographically and ideologically different, even to Republicans. But, I mean, so he's showing strength at this point that the others have to disprove.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the Democrats.

You just heard our report from South Carolina last night.

MARK SHIELDS: I did. Excellent report.


But, Mark, my question is, where does the Democratic race stand? Hillary Clinton right now way ahead in the polls in South Carolina. Bernie Sanders' people themselves don't expect him to win. They're focusing on Super Tuesday. What is — who needs to do what at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, she needs a convincing victory, but she also more than anything else has to demonstrate enthusiasm, some passion on the part of voters.

The Democratic turnout has been down, in spite of the excitement generated by Bernie Sanders among younger voters, especially in New Hampshire and Iowa. But it's been down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Compared to the Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: Compared to 2008, and the Republican is up.


MARK SHIELDS: And that is an early indicator of where both parties are in any given presidential year, when there is that kind of intensity and passion on one side and the absence of it.

So, I think Senator — Secretary Clinton has to demonstrate that she is able to generate enthusiasm, intensity, passion. I think she has to win decisively there, no more four-point, five-point victories, a la Nevada.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And cutting right into Super Tuesday, which is just a few days away.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, how do you see the Democratic — the challenge both that Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders face?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, the problem for Senator Sanders is not just that he is so far behind in South Carolina. It's that he is behind because he's not doing well with African-Americans.

And that is a sign of his great weakness in these primary contests. You can't win the Democratic nomination if you can't get a lot of African-American votes.

The problem for Hillary Clinton is that there's no putting Senator Sanders away. That is, I think he got into the race as a cause candidate, as somebody who wanted to make a point. And then it became possible for him maybe to win. If it stops being possible for him to win, his original rationale doesn't disappear, and there is no reason for him to drop out of the race. He just stays in there and makes his point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're not saying we're at that point now, are you?

RAMESH PONNURU: I'm not. but I'm saying that even if Clinton does very well in South Carolina, it just causes him to go back to protest mode.

It doesn't mean that he's — I think there is no reason for him to drop out because he's angling for a Cabinet appointment in the Clinton administration, the way a normal primary candidate would be.

MARK SHIELDS: Two quick points to support Ramesh's central point.

First is that Democrats have proportional representation. So, Bernie Sanders, with 40 percent of the delegates at the Democratic Convention, and if that's the case in Philadelphia, what does he want? Does he want a platform? Does he want Hillary Clinton…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you expect him to win some contests.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I expect him to win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More contests.

MARK SHIELDS: Even if it goes the best way for Clinton from this point forward, yes, I do think he will win states and he will surprise us.

But I say that because this gives him enormous leverage, and he does — and the other — second thing is, you already see Senate candidates, Democratic Senate candidates echoing and mimicking his words and his issues, talking about the economy being rigged in the very language that Bernie Sanders has used.

So he's already having an impact and an influence far beyond what anybody expected, perhaps even himself, when this began.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coming out of her Nevada win last weekend, Ramesh, Bernie Sanders says words to the effect, Hillary Clinton is already adopting some of what we believe, so that's already taking place.

RAMESH PONNURU: That's right.

She's talked about having a public option in health care again. And that is, I think, the Sanders influence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh Ponnuru, Mark Shields, it couldn't get any more exciting than it is right now. Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thanks for having me.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.