MS. IFILL: Hello and welcome to Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of next week’s Democratic National Convention. We’re here to tell you all you need to know, tonight on “Washington Week.”
ANNOUNCER: The next president of the United States of America, Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: It’s official. The Republicans have a ticket.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Nominee]: Now is the moment where we can stand up and say I’m an American. I make my destiny. We deserve better. My children deserve better. My family deserves better. My country deserves better.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI): Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program and rating it. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debates.
MS. IFILL: After a hurricane-shadowed week of soft biography –
MS. ANN ROMNEY: This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America.
MS. IFILL: – and tough talk –
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): They believe the American people need to be cuddled by big government. They believe the American people are content to live the lie with them. They’re wrong.
MS. IFILL: The GOP turns its eye towards the White House. And Democrats prepare to descend on Charlotte. The president hones his counterattack.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So in just over two months, you will make a choice about which path we take and it’s going to be a smart choice.
MS. IFILL: As the candidates for president prepare for the final stretch. Joining me tonight in Charlotte, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, and Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics.
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 Robinson Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, moderator Gwen Ifill. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Hello, Charlotte. (Applause.) Hello, Charlotte, and thanks for joining us here at UNC Charlotte. This city will be the epicenter of the political universe next week, when Democrats gather to re-nominate President Barack Obama. We arrived this morning straight from Tampa, where Republicans may still be partying tonight after ascending their new ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on the road.
MR. ROMNEY: Unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class of America.
As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I’ll honor the institution of marriage.
And I will guarantee America’s first liberty, the freedom of religion.
President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: That speech and the rest of the GOP convention showcased the party’s leading lights and energized debates. Can Democrats do the same thing next week, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, this is interesting because the two conventions are back to back with a holiday weekend in between, but – (audio break) – for everyone, but those of us who are here. And you know, one thing that I think they have done is lay down some premises that the Democrats are going to have to address, and in particular this line that we’ve heard over and over and over again, which was sort of mocking the president’s – you could call it a gaffe, you could call it an out of context statement, where we – you didn’t build that. Again and again in the – at the convention, the Republicans were saying, we did build it. And so I’m wondering if there will be a bit of damage control.
That line, by the way, was from a rally that the president did some weeks back, where he was – the point that he was trying to make was that – you know – when somebody has success, a lot of things go into it and when businesses succeed, somebody’s built the roads, somebody’s done the infrastructure.
MS. IFILL: Jeff, did Romney basically – was he able to shift his fortunes this week? He went to Tampa planning to say, this is who I am and this is why you should like me better because the race is, what, tight as a tick, as Dan Rather used to say.
MR. ZELENY: It is tight as a tick. We saw Dan Rather at the convention hall. But I think he probably improved his fortunes at least a bit in the short term. It’s going to take a while to see how this actually settled in out in America. The most important audience were not the delegates who were screaming and holding up signs. The most importance audience here were the voters in key swing states, including North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa. So it’ll take a while to find out if the people who still aren’t sold on him were sort of won over by this humanizing of him.
But I think that’s what we saw throughout the whole week, just an effort to highlight every chapter of his life. He’s had a hard time sort of doing this himself. All of his advisers say he does not like to talk about himself. He’s uncomfortable in that respect. So he summoned all kinds of people from – from different walks of his life to give testimonials.
So I think at least in that respect, I think he did sort of improved the perception of himself, but we’ll find out at the end of the day if that’s enough to get people to vote for him. It’s kind of a joint message. Fire Obama; hire Romney. And we have 67 days to see if it worked.
MS. IFILL: But it’s counting, right?
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MS. IFILL: I want to go back to that fire Obama part in a moment, because obviously, we’re here in Charlotte to watch the Democrats. But John, I was curious that was the humanizing part, which both he and Ann Romney seemed to in some ways resist doing too much of, so they got others to do it for them. Then, there was an emphasis on the convention floor of a diversity of voices, especially Latino voices, which Mr. Romney is losing to Barack Obama among them, and there was a big focus on women voters. So did they break through in those fronts?
MR. HARWOOD: I think they did. Not on the African-American front. I think it is possible they did on the women front, which was the most conspicuous focus. White women were really the audience they were trying to talk to here. Hispanics to a lesser degree. They can’t be moved as much as – or they’re not locked in as much as African Americans are –
MS. IFILL: It seemed more like they were talking about the future of Hispanics in the party rather than the president.
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, exactly. But I agree with Jeff. I do think there were moments, especially in Romney’s acceptance speech, when he showed emotion. He talked about family. He talked about his parents. All those are universal characteristics, like the ones that Ann Romney was talking about with respect to Mitt Romney as husband, as father, as grandfather. And so I think, in some way, millions of people who had not been exposed to those messages got that. Now, we’ll see whether or not – as we watch the polls, whether it actually seeped in and made a difference.
MS. TUMULTY: If we probably – the context here and the reason it was so important is that, at least according to our pollsters at the Washington Post, Mitt Romney now stands as the most unpopular major party nominee in modern history. His favorability is somewhere in the 30s. And that is a pretty deep hole to be digging out of. Now, his advisers will say, you know, this isn’t a popularity contest and this time around people are looking for somebody who can fix the economy. But the country has, at least in the history of polling, never elected the candidate that it likes least.
MS. IFILL: Yes, the country has also never elected a president presiding over a floundering economy.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s true, so –
MS. IFILL: They can –
MS. TUMULTY: – how could either of these guys get elected? (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Who knows? We’re going to stay in there and find out.
That’s what the Ron Paul people were thinking. That’s true, actually. Actually, let’s go back to the Obama – obviously, the Democrats didn’t take this dying down. Early in the week, before the hurricane was threatening, Vice President Biden was going to go to Tampa. I don’t know about you, but I ran into Obama’s surrogates everywhere I went to the convention hall. They stayed off the floor. I don’t think they much let them on the floor of the convention, but they were around in a lot of Sky boxes talking to reporters as much as humanly possible. What’s the point of that, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the counter-programming is not new in the hall. We’ve seen that for many, many, many cycles before. And that’s an effort to constantly be pushing back in the news cycle that we’re all in, or the news minute that we’re all in. One of the things that I was doing, though, doing the Republican convention was following President Obama we noticed he was not what they call down. He was not resting during the period of the Republican Convention. He was trying to appeal to younger voters, making visits to campuses. That’s not a brand new iteration to watch the sitting president aggressively campaigning during the Republican convention, but it was a very interesting thing to watch because he was whacking Mitt Romney pretty hard at every stop along the way, and teeing up the arguments that we’re going to hear here in Charlotte.
MS. IFILL: You mentioned the fact that he chose to go after young voters this week. I was actually kind of interested that some of the most effective lines in some respects in all the speeches was one from Paul Ryan’s speech, when he said, people who supported Obama are now looking at – are now sleeping in their childhood beds, watching the fading posters on the wall. It seems to me that that was by design – they’re going after those voters who don’t dislike him, but are disappointed.
MR. ZELENY: I think that’s exactly right, but if you unpack that statement a little bit, the posters are still hanging on the wall. (Laughter.) Which is one of the central sort of issues here, that the Romney campaign is trying to create this permission structure, if you will, for people to say, you know what, I am proud of my vote four years ago. I don’t mind what I did in 2008, but I’m not going to vote for him again. So there’s a lot going on in there, but I’m told by one speechwriter, who said that there was a big discussion about having that line in the speech. Several people said, we don’t like it, but Paul Ryan said, no, I like it. It speaks to people and he was right. It was probably the line of the night or one of the lines of the night.
MS. IFILL: Or maybe because he believed it, he delivered it very well as well.
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MS. IFILL: So why do you think – what is the White House prepared to do, then, in this kind of case? Do they see huge holes they could drive a truck through in this convention, or did the Republicans deliver a fairly airtight argument?
MR. HARWOOD: Before I forget, at some risk of my credibility, I may – my answer may get downgraded, I just have to say, since I’m in Charlotte, one, go Duke and –
MS. IFILL: Oh.
MR. HARWOOD: – and two, happy birthday, Avery. My daughter turns 15 in Washington while I’m here.
MS. IFILL: The go Duke thing, however – you should have done that daughter first.
MR. HARWOOD: I think what the Democrats have got to do is two things. One, they’ve got to go very aggressively at what the Republican agenda is. Romney did not – interestingly, he did not talk at great length about his agenda in his acceptance speech. Democrats believe that if they look at the Ryan budget, which Mitt Romney has more or less embraced, that if they can get people to understand what is involved in that, over the long-term, 40 percent cut in all functions of government other than Medicare, Social Security, and Defense, and big cuts in Medicare, that they can win that argument. So one is the take down of that.
The other is they’ve got to give some vision of what an Obama second term will be like. One of the things that you heard from Republican speakers over and over, and Karen talked about responding to some of the predicates that were laid down by Republicans, was, oh, President Obama has no plan for a second term. He just wants to hold power and he plays golf all the time. He’s got to give a sense of exactly what he hopes to accomplish and give people some reason to believe that given the divided government we have that he can get it done.
MS. IFILL: Well, that does seem to be a big question. I feel like Judy and I – Woodruff and I asked these questions of every Republican we’ve interviewed this week during our coverage, which is, well, okay, so assume you go to Washington. It’s nearly divided. Assume that Democrats, I mean, even lose their control of the Senate. How do you get anything done? And I don’t think we got one satisfactory answer.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that President Obama has been saying that’s interesting is a theory of he calls it either bursting the blister or in some way –
MS. TUMULTY: I wish he’d find another –
MR. HARWOOD: That was not pretty.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Exactly, yucky. But the idea is that fever breaks, right? And that his argument is that if Mitt Romney and Republicans running for the Oval Office lose, that something about Washington will change because an argument has been made, a mandate has been discovered, and that Congress and the White House will sit down because the problems are so enormous and that they’ve laid down some arguments on both sides to come together.
You know, there are many, many very smart people in Washington who’ve watched this over the years who are doubtful about this because we haven’t seen any evidence of that so far.
MR. HARWOOD: But Alexis, on that point, I’ve got to say, I had a conversation recently with Senator Alan Simpson, former Senator Simpson who served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission. And he said he thought if the president was reelected that there would be that moment and the reason would be that Republicans had spent the last four years trying to stop him, trying to get him defeated. And once they – if they failed to do that, they are going to have a difficult time resuming that posture immediately. Not necessarily the same story if Mitt Romney is elected from the Democrats.
MS. TUMULTY: But this is a very different kind of election dynamic. The last four presidents in a row, you know, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama, were all elected on this premise that Washington was broken and I am going to be this president who can bring the two sides together and bridge the differences. And I think now we’ve reached a point where people say, no, Washington is broken and somebody’s got to win this argument.
MS. IFILL: And the argument is, at least when it comes to the voting booth, is driven by enthusiasm or lack thereof. So assuming that part of what Mitt Romney did this week was selling himself to other Republicans, who were concerned for various free floating reasons about his warmth, his ability, his Mormonism, or whatever, so does Barack Obama. Four years ago, he – there was a coast of excitement that surrounded his election. So who has the bigger enthusiasm gap?
MR. ZELENY: I think that is the central question. I mean, one of the things that I was thinking when I was in the hall, last night, writing my story, watching Governor Romney speak, the fact that he was even sort of being accepted by this Republican Party was pretty extraordinary. He –
MS. IFILL: The words Tea Party never got mentioned from the podium.
MR. ZELENY: Exactly, which was by design. But people in the crowd, all the delegates you talked to, all the Republican activists, probably were more excited about defeating President Obama than they were electing Mitt Romney. But also, it really doesn’t matter. A vote is a vote. So I think without a doubt Republicans are motivated to defeat this president, but Democrats next week – I mean, the Obama campaign has been, I think, a little bit shocked by – I don’t know how many people here received emails from the campaign, send in $3, $5. The reason people are getting so many is because people aren’t doing it.
MS. IFILL: I’m about to block them.
MR. ZELENY: Right. (Laughter.) And that excitement, I think, will be fascinating to watch on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium to see if his reception is as booming as it was four years ago in Mile High Stadium.
MS. TUMULTY: In terms of this so-called enthusiasm gap, though, up until this point, Barack Obama had, in our polling in the Washington Post – we polled with ABC – had a double digit advantage over Mitt Romney in terms of his partisans being enthusiastic about him. We did a poll last week that suggested that Romney has closed that gap quite a bit and there’s one reason: Paul Ryan.
MR. HARWOOD: I was going to say. If you talk about the enthusiasm gap, look at the gap between the top and the second guy in the Republican ticket. This is the second straight Republican convention that has fell in love with its vice presidential nominee and thinks the nominee is just okay.
MS. TUMULTY: And now, very conservative voters are as enthusiastic about the Romney ticket as very liberal and voters have been about Obama.
MS. IFILL: So is Paul Ryan as great a help to Mitt Romney as Joe Biden was at this time four years ago for Barack Obama?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, yes, I definitely think so.
MS. IFILL: Yes, you do. I mean, his speech got some criticism for being selective in its facts, to put it –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, that’s a whole other interesting dynamic of where we are in this race. And that is, do facts matter? And you watch at the White House or with the Obama campaign the frustration that they feel because as a president there is a feeling that we can have our campaign surrogates tell you some whoppers, but the president is somewhat more wedded to something related to the facts. And they are concerned that the direction that the campaign has gone in both ways, directions, has been – what shall we say whopper laid in, right? And there – and that maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the voters are so because we’re seeing that so many voters have already made up their minds. They already believe that they know how they’re going to vote that maybe that is what’s feeding this idea of keep stoking those fires.
MS. IFILL: Now, we have to talk about Clint Eastwood. (Laughter.) Why? Because if we didn’t, we’d be the only people on television not talking about Clint Eastwood tonight. What was that about, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: Well, some people are trying to feel – trying to answer that question. And those people are in the Romney campaign, probably beginning with Ann Romney. The look on her face when this was going on made very clear that she was not expecting this. He was supposed to speak for about five minutes. It was scripted into the program. He spoke for about 12 or 13 minutes. And people were on pins and needles wondering what he was going to say. And from my vantage point, in the convention hall, I could see the teleprompter and it just said Eastwood vamp. And boy, did he. And – (laughter) – I thought it was – it was the only sort of odd moment in a otherwise scripted by the minute thing.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. ZELENY: My guess is that this does not have some huge effect in the long-term here. We move on from these things so quickly. But it – it was – in some levels, disrespectful perhaps. It was probably bizarre perhaps. And I think it was a couple of rogue advisers, actually top advisers who thought it would be amusing, but he was there speaking for a purpose. His message actually was not – it was really interesting. The empty chair, all that was – seemed to be kind of by design. So –
MS. IFILL: It was, but here is the thing. And I think that you’re right. This is for the audience in the hall, but it’s also supposed to be for the audiences outside the hall. And there’s something about an empty chair and an invisible president reminded me of Ralph Allison. And I thought did they mean to say that? I don’t think so. And I think anything that happens that overshadows what was supposed to be the big night for the nominee, which it certainly did, at least for the short-term, seems ill-advised.
MS. TUMULTY: And that the person – you know, it couldn’t have come at a worse moment. You have Marco Rubio waiting in the wings for his big introductory speech. It walked all over what was, I think, most people think a very effective biographical video. And –
MS. IFILL: Which didn’t run in that 10 o’clock hour in the broadcast, other networks, other than ours was on the air.
MS. TUMULTY: And it was just a head scratcher. And that is not what you want the moment before your nominee walks on that stage to accept the nomination.
MR. HARWOOD: I would say, Gwen, I agree with Jeff. I don’t think this is going to be an election deciding event. However, in a race this close with voters so dug in, really every day matters and the day after your nominee delivers his acceptance speech is a pretty important day in the campaign. And for that reason, I think this has to go down as the biggest stagecraft blunder that I can remember in any convention that I’ve been –
MS. IFILL: Because it stepped all over this big 24 hours of coverage.
I also want to ask each of you before we go, briefly, what does President Obama have to accomplish this week in Charlotte? Alexis.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, we were talking about the enthusiasm gap. One way that I think that the president is thinking that they can close some of that is to create a fever pitch of fear or concern about what Mitt Romney would do if he were president of the United States. And the president’s well known. The idea is to try to scare America into thinking that this is a risk. If we watch the whole convention in which Mitt Romney was very softly telling everyone, it was okay that you voted for this guy, but you know, he let you down. It’s all right to vote the Republican ticket. Then my feeling is that the president is going to really try to ramp up this idea that no, it’s not okay, not because you like me or because you need to know more about my biography, but because of what – the country’s at stake.
MS. IFILL: Jeff.
MR. ZELENY: I think he has to reach out to some of those people who supported him four years ago. If everyone votes – even if the vast majority of them vote for him again, he’ll win. But he has to rekindle some of that magic. But he’s having Bill Clinton speak the night before him, on Wednesday night. And that will also be endlessly fascinating. Who knows?
MS. IFILL: Always. (Laughter.)
MR. ZELENY: An empty chair or something. So that’s one thing that I’m watching, but I think he has to just kind of remind people why they liked him in the first place, but do more forward looking as opposed to more things going backwards.
MS. IFILL: If Bill Clinton brings an empty chair and says nothing and then just keeps talking, that’d be great.
MS. TUMULTY: The campaign keeps telling us, too, that we are going to be seeing a lot of the stories of ordinary people this week, who are struggling through difficult times, but who have been benefited by the policies.
MR. HARWOOD: To Alexis’s point, I talked to one former Clinton adviser yesterday who said they have got to dissect and take down the Ryan budget in a brutal fashion because they’ve got to make clear the stakes that you were talking about, which is why I think we can’t say whether Ryan is going to help or hurt this ticket until that fight is had. And I agree with Jeff. The other thing is he’s got to cast forward, give people a sense of if you elect me, this is what I can realistically expect to get done and try to get done in the second term.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’re all going to be at the edge of our seats, not only at the venue, but also at the stadium, Bank of America Stadium, on Wednesday night – Thursday night –
MR. ZELENY: Thursday night.
MS. IFILL: Thank you. It’s all running together. I appreciate you all coming out to see us. Thank you all very much. We have so much more to talk about. And it’s been such a good conversation that we’re not going to let it end. So we’re going to keep talking online and taking questions from our live audience here in Charlotte. You don’t have to be here to join in. Just go online and watch the “Washington Week” Election 2012 Town Hall, Carolina’s edition.
Our sincere thanks go out to the administration here at UNC Charlotte and the staff here at Robinson Hall.
Next week’s another big one. Judy Woodruff and I will anchor “NewsHour’s” comprehensive coverage of the Democratic national convention every night. Then we’ll be back in Washington next week on “Washington Week.” Have a good Labor Day weekend. Good night. (Applause.)