MS. IFILL: Romney and Santorum square off. Who has more to lose in this expensive race? Plus, the slaughter in Syria and the upheaval in Afghanistan, tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.
MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney punches back.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): Who do you trust? Who’s authentic? Who’s believable?
MS. IFILL: And it’s a two-man race again, this time with the high stakes in Romney’s native state of Michigan as both sides, and even President Obama, spend like it’s going out of style.
POLITICAL AD [Narrator]: Is this dude serious? Fiscal conservative? Really? How can Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama when on the vital decisions they’re not much different?
ROBERT GAY [Businessman]: The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney.
POLITICAL AD [Narrator]: Every Republican candidate turned their back, even said let Detroit go bankrupt. Not him.
MS. IFILL: Another week, another political pivot point in the 2012 primary campaign. Abroad, the brutal crackdown in Syria continues. What can the international community do?
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We will be discussing a range of options from tightening sanctions to increasing humanitarian relief, to helping the opposition.
MS. IFILL: And Afghans express fury over the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base.
Covering the week, Michael Duffy of Time magazine; Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News; Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers; and Yochi Dreazen of National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. You can tell we’re approach another do or die moment in this Republican primary contest as the criticism gets more personal and the predictions more apocalyptic. Next week’s tests occur in Arizona, in Michigan, where this week there were high-minded speeches, low-minded negative advertising and one big debate. In this debate exchange, the argument between frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum seemed to be about birth control, but it really was about who do you trust?
MR. ROMNEY: You said that you personally oppose contraceptives but you said that you voted for Title 10. But you use that as an argument saying, this is something I did proactively. You didn’t say this is something I was opposed to; it wasn’t something I would have done. You said this in a positive light, I voted for Title 10.
MR. SANTORUM: I think I was making it clear that while I have a personal moral objection to it, even though I don’t support it, that I voted for bills that included it. And I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don’t support that.
MS. IFILL: Even though I don’t support it, I voted for bills that included it. That’s never a good answer.
Tonight, which one of these guys, Michael, was punching through? It sounded like Rick Santorum was having a tough time.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. Punching through is a perfect metaphor. And whether either of them will be standing as tall on Wednesday morning when these two states finish voting next week is really the question. Just to paint the picture really fast, in Michigan, this weekend, Mitt Romney or his Super PACs will spend close to $2 million on negative ads attacking Santorum. Santorum will come back with about $1 million in ads this weekend. Meanwhile, Ron Paul is going to attack Santorum from the right with about $400,000 worth of ads. And just to make it interesting and bipartisan, Barack Obama is also running ads in Michigan this weekend attacking Romney.
So in the middle of this crossfire, just before it unfolds, we did have this amazing – the last of the 20 debates we think. Romney and Paul put Santorum in this rhetorical pincher movement, this squeeze play – he didn’t quite know how to handle it – on spending, on contraception, on education. And I think if it turns out that this is the week that Santorum peaks, the words “I took one for the team” maybe carved on his political headstone.
MS. IFILL: It’s how he explained his support of No Child Left Behind. But, at the same time, Romney is the one who everybody is firing at. So how is he pushing?
MR. DUFFY: It’s interesting. The same week that you would think he would have gained some momentum, the talk of the contested convention increased. And Romney made I guess some mistakes that continue to raise questions about his public performance simply as a candidate. He proposed a new corporate tax plan on Wednesday, but didn’t really bring it up that night in the debate which was a great opportunity to do that. He gave a pretty well-publicized speech today at the Detroit Economic Club, but there was no news in it, though he did finish the speech with a comment about sort of – it was a Motown pander, saying that his wife owned two Cadillacs. That’s going to go right into the Obama campaign hope chest.
MS. IFILL: And there was a lot more written, at least in social media, today about the fact that he was in Ford Field with tens of thousands of empty seats and then 1,200 – which is still a good number – of his supporters right up front. It looked really –
MR. DUFFY: It’s a reminder that even if he does well on Tuesday, he still faces questions in the party about whether he just simply has – nothing breeds success in politics like success and he hasn’t had a lot of both yet. And he needs to sort of consolidate his power, have a string of victories. He hasn’t had that. And until he does, there are going to be questions about his status as the frontrunner.
MS. CUMMINGS: And, Michael, there’s no indication that Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum will quit, so he will continue to face these sort of challenges as he goes forward. And there’s talk of a late entry, brokered convention, all of this. What is your take?
MR. DUFFY: I don’t think most people who are running expected for us to be here 60 days later. There are 13 contests in the next two weeks. There are four or five the week afterwards. We’re already looking at a scenario where this is going to go, almost no matter what happens, into April. The delegates from here on out are handed out proportionately, which means you can stay in and play. And because so much money is coming from outside the campaigns to forces, there’s really no incentive to quit either, which means this is just going to go on much longer than anyone expected.
MS. YOUSSEF: So, Michael, then is Arizona or Michigan more important given all those factors, or neither?
MR. DUFFY: Yes. Michigan is the bigger state. So in that respect it has more delegates and more important to the people running in terms of getting closer to the nomination. But it’s really not much up for grabs in the fall. It’s a state where Romney comes from, so he kind of needs to win it. He won it last time. So it’s sort of – as Gwen said at the top, a do-or-die state for him. On the other hand, Arizona is perhaps in play in the fall because the Obama campaign is making a big effort there. So they have to be sure that they contest there now. And I think it’s important to note that Obama is working in both places at the same time.
MR. DREAZEN: He obviously had that very famous editorial, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” which I can’t imagine plays well in Detroit. How does he try to explain that now since Detroit is back and the car companies are doing well? How do you disavow that and not have the flip-flopper charge come back at you again?
MR. DUFFY: It is astonishing that a Republican would go into Michigan and say that and expect to win. But the Republican Party in Michigan is very, very conservative. It’s controlled by its tea party faction. They hate the bailouts. They hate the car company rescues. It’s almost table stakes to get in. You have to be against it in order to get into that state.
MS. IFILL: And George Romney – two words – the former governor of the state. Romneys are a very well-known name. You can’t just dismiss that completely.
But a campaign like this doesn’t come cheap. And this year, the money race is telling us a lot of what we need to know about this campaign and about these candidates. So who’s buying and who’s selling, Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it’s funny – and as a campaign, Mitt Romney is buying. And as a campaign, he’s about the only who’s still in the game buying. It’s – when you spoke of – when we talked about them not leaving, and you mentioned because they can get these sugar daddies to come in – Gingrich’s campaign and Rick Santorum’s campaign have both really been floated by these wealthy backers. Under any normal political Darwinian theory, they would both have had to go as a weaker species, but not this cycle. And so it’s going to go on longer, as long as the rich people still want to write the checks.
MS. IFILL: But, theoretically, there’s still strategy involved in this. I spent the week in Arizona where the only advertising on the air was a Romney – a pro-Romney Super PAC ad that was attacking Santorum. Santorum wasn’t on the air. Gingrich wasn’t on the air. Paul wasn’t on the air. Obviously decisions about whether Arizona was more important than Michigan had been made, so strategy still exists even with these outside groups.
MS. CUMMINGS: Definitely. And we – all of the candidates in the week after Florida pulled back and tried to do fundraising to try to get their own campaign accounts somewhat in order. And Speaker Gingrich hit Washington State. You know, it’s little noticed up there, trying to maybe pick off something, but he’s putting a lot of emphasis down in Georgia on Super Tuesday, again, to make the argument, I won my home state. Santorum obviously chose Michigan as opposed to Arizona because it would be such an embarrassment to Romney and because that is such a conservative Republican –
MS. IFILL: And it’s not a winner-take-all delegate process.
MS. CUMMINGS: The delegate process is really complex and in many ways it is sort of a winner-take-all because they’re playing games with the way they stay proportional. But it would be a huge blow to Romney. If he loses Michigan, that campaign is going to go into one heck of a tailspin.
MR. DUFFY: And Romney has a broader base of financial backers than anyone else. But are his funds – could we call them unlimited at this point or does he also face ceilings and challenges in keeping his operation going as this gets longer and longer?
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. He definitely does. You could see – he was one who pulled back and did a bunch of fundraisers in part because he’s spending so much more. I mean, he has spent $55 million. If you look at Santorum and Gingrich, together they get to $21. So he spent twice as much as both of them out of his own campaign account. He’s buying his own advertising. He’s running heavy loads of advertising. He’s built a whole campaign, so he has a staff. If you go out with Rick Santorum, there are four people around him and that’s kind of it. So he’s built a complete operation. And it costs a lot of money. And so he does have, though, very loyal backers who have been with him for nine years. They have been writing checks to extend his presidential dreams. Those people aren’t going anywhere.
MR. DREAZEN: Jeanne, when you talk about that he just spent $55 million – it’s a staggering sum of money – is that what he spent or is that what the Super PACs, which also back him, have spent on his behalf?
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. No. That’s what he spent. The Super PAC spent $25 million. So right now, because of Romney’s spending, Romney alone is like giving the candidates a $2 million edge over the Super PACs. That won’t last for long because all of them are going to start relying more on the Super PACs to run all of their ads.
MS. YOUSSEF: Jeanne, I’m curious, where does Obama’s financing compare to the Republicans’?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, in classic Obama style, he’s completely blown them out of the water. He’s raised $137 million. He’s spent over $70 million. And it’s interesting that he has spent all that money without going on air very much. So Obama is taking a lot of his money and he is building the infrastructure.
MS. IFILL: Well, and that’s the question – the infrastructure for the general election is what he has the luxury to build. That’s what incumbents do. Is anybody else going to have anything left over to build an infrastructure for the general election?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it doesn’t appear at this point that this Republican primary has the same dynamic that the Democratic primary had four years ago, which was Obama got stronger as the primary went on. If Romney remains the frontrunner, he’s getting weaker, not stronger. And we haven’t seen that light go off when suddenly all the small donors enter the race, which sustained Obama for a long period of time, that kind of grassroots energy. We haven’t seen that yet.
MS. IFILL: I’ve got one quick final question for you: why do these people write these big checks? Why do these individuals – there’s only a handful of them – write these big checks to these campaigns?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, some of it is personal loyalty. Like Romney has old Bain people. He has the Staples people who he helped when he was at Bain. And Adelson in Las Vegas, the big donor to Gingrich, they have Israel plus a friendship. And some of them – there are 14 millionaires who are in the game right now. And some of them do it because they can.
MS. IFILL: Because they can. Isn’t that why rich people do – that’s why any of us do what we do. Okay. Thank you very much, Jeanne.
Now we’re going to move on to the standoff in Syria, now 11 months old with 6,000 Syrians dead. The United Nations says President Bashar al Assad is responsible for a widespread, systematic violation of human rights. Secretary of State Clinton in Tunis today called it despicable. And President Obama spoke out about the situation late this afternoon in the Oval Office.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we are going to continue to keep the pressure up and look for every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents in Syria. It’s important that we not be bystanders during these extraordinary events.
MS. IFILL: Not be bystanders in these extraordinary events, Nancy. What are the alternatives to being bystanders?
MS. YOUSSEF: Not many in the immediate. Remember, there is no U.N. mandate that allows for military intervention because Russia and China have blocked that resolution. And, up until now, the United States has said that it would not arm the Syrian opposition because the United States didn’t know who they were. General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that just last week. But Obama’s comments suggest that the United States is starting to consider that.
But even that is not a great option. Remember, there are no good options here. It’s arguable whether that’s even a viable – that option. Who do you arm? And could arming them prolong the conflict there? Also, there’s a logistical problem. How do you get those arms in? And how long does then fighting then go on? And it doesn’t guarantee that that fighting can end.
And so the administration is presented with a lot of bad options. And I think what we’re hearing from the administration this week was a signal that they’re starting to consider arming them, which was considered inconceivable just a few weeks ago because there are unknowns.
MS. IFILL: A year ago we saw dictator after dictator after dictator fall in the Arab spring. And there was this – supposedly democracy was sweeping the Middle East. Assad has gone nowhere, no matter how much people ratchet up the pressure on him. Why not?
MS. YOUSSEF: There are two threads that sort of ran through all the countries where the dictators fell. Number one was foreign intervention, or Western intervention. And number two was defections within the military. And Assad hasn’t had to deal with either one.
His military is the 13th largest in the world and his generals are largely Alawites, who are the same minority sect as him. We’ve seen defections enough to form the Free Syrian Army, but not enough to sort of start the domino effect of the collapse of his army. It remains strong. It remains armed. And according to Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, 80 percent of his infantry is out fighting this opposition.
Western intervention is also a key part of this, but as you’ve seen this week, that’s not a viable option either. There was a conference in Tunisia today and 60 nations came together and tried to present a united front. And what we really saw was that they’re really divided about the way ahead in Syria and what they can do. They’re divided on everything as – from whether you intervene militarily to even arming the rebels.
MR. DUFFY: You said at the top that Russia and China are opposed to the U.N. sanctioned intervention. Is it in the U.S. – it’s a little old-fashioned to ask – but is it in the U.S. interest to intervene, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it’s a question of morals and interests in some way. You could argue that what we’re seeing is a proxy war that’s between the United States and Iran and so this would be a way to weaken Iran. Remember, Iran uses Syria and an Assad-led Syria to get arms to Hezbollah. So in that sense it’s certainly beneficial.
But you’re right. We never know what’s coming next. And the instability – can we afford one in a country that’s a keystone in terms of Shia-Sunni relations? It’s a critical question.
At the same time, can we morally afford to allow the killing of civilians every day? Homs has been bombarded for three weeks straight. And politically can we afford to say as a nation that we’re going to stand idle while this is happening, even as we say we support people who rise up and try to bring democracy to their country? It’s one of the many reasons this has become such a complex issue for the Obama administration.
MR. DREAZEN: Can you imagine this becoming something like Libya where the U.S. is basically dragged kicking and screaming by other countries? The British said today they’ll start arming the rebels. Turkey is talking about creating a safe haven. Could this be something like Libya where we come in –
MS. IFILL: It does begin to sound familiar, like we’ve been here before.
MS. YOUSSEF: It does, doesn’t it? There was a similar meeting a year ago when we started considering Libya. Without the United Nations vote, I think it becomes difficult. I think what we’re seeing is the consideration of arming the rebels as one effort to get in, but in terms of military intervention, those also are bad options.
There’s – the naval blockade would be off because Russia has a port in Syria. An air strike would be difficult because how do you strike a sovereign nation without that mandate? So militarily I think – and it’s a cruel irony – the lack of U.N. votes sort of limits the United States having to fully intervene militarily.
Now, could the United States be dragged in terms of humanitarian and weapons support, and find itself supporting groups that it doesn’t know about because of the international pressure? Sure. And that presents its own complexities.
MS. IFILL: Well, there’s another hotspot which also presents difficulties for the U.S., and that’s in Afghanistan, where this week’s outbreak of violent protests came in apparent retaliation for the burning of religious materials, including Korans on a U.S. military base. President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta apologized for what officials said was the unintentional destruction. But this incident unmasked some real tensions in our relationship with Afghanistan, even as we try to withdraw, Yochi.
MR. DREAZEN: It does. I mean, it’s not just tensions between us and Afghanistan. It’s tensions in Afghanistan. You’ve seen three things come to the fore, each one in some ways more depressing than the other. We’re not popular there. This a reminder that we are just simply not popular. The crowds are changing “death to America,” “America out.” That’s one thing.
The other issue is that there’s more sympathy for the Taliban than I think we realize. We think of them as this barbaric group that people hated and wanted out of power, which is true, but people also remember that as being a non-corrupt period. There was no violence. Now, obviously, there’s horrific violence in Afghanistan.
The third thing is that you see a willingness on the part of more Afghan soldiers each month, more Afghan police officers each month to turn their weapons on the Americans, French, Europeans who are fighting beside them. And that’s a horrible thing politically and it’s a horrible thing just on a human level.
MS. IFILL: What actually happened at this U.S. air base with these materials?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s a kind of bizarre case, frankly. It’s Parwan, which is a major prison on a major U.S. base. There was a concern that prisoners were using religious papers and material to pass messages back and forth, so they confiscated a whole stack and burned them all. And in that stack were Korans. No one seems to have noticed. No one seems to have stopped it. Word got out from an Afghan. An Afghan told the U.S. what happened. The U.S., whether it’s wise or stupid, publicly acknowledged what happened and it’s blown up.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, if we are leaving, are we leaving a country that can govern itself? As we see these things – the Afghanistan police and military are trying to control some of these protests and yet they get worse and worse?
MR. DREAZEN: I mean, you’re seeing them frankly try to control them in the worst possible way, which is to shoot into the crowds. You’ve had 24 people killed roughly. You’ve had in that two Americans killed. It’s mainly because as these people come closer, as they did today, to President Karzai’s palace, his guards shoot into the crowd. You had a march in Herat where there’s a major U.S. consulate, police shot into the crowd. So you’re seeing a very fragile, very scared government lashing out nowhere near the scale of Syria, nowhere near the scale of Libya, but their first reaction is fire into the crowds.
MS. YOUSSEF: You know, Yochi, I was talking to some of my Afghan friends this week and one of the things they said was they couldn’t believe that 11 years into the war, that the United States through all its training and exposure to Muslims, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, were making these basic mistakes of not respecting the Islamic holy book, which is a basic tenet of Islam. What are you hearing in the Pentagon about this? How are they explaining this kind of mistake this late into the war?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s a good question. I mean, there’s a basic level of knowledge, but paired with a basic level of fear. So if you’re really afraid about messages being passed back and forth that could lead to attacks, you want to intervene.
What I think it’s most damaging here is every time there’s a little bit of good news, there’s a little bit of bad news that overshadows it – 2011 was the only year in five years where fewer Americans died than the previous year – good news. Then you have the imagery of the Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. You have the Taliban open up a political office, which suggests maybe there will be peace talks. Now you have the burning of the Koran. So it’s a little bit of good news and then much bigger bad news.
MR. DUFFY: You said that there are many people in Afghanistan who want the U.S. to leave. There’s obviously a lot of people in the United States who would like to leave setting forth the question of why we just can’t leave. Do you expect it is possible sometime in the next year or even before the election that the timetable in Afghanistan could change, accelerate the withdrawal?
MR. DREAZEN: I do. I mean, right now, the timetable is 20,000 leave this year; the remaining 60,000 stays somewhere until 2014. But there’s no question the White House sees this war as a political liability. They don’t think we’re winning. They think at best we’re sort of holding steady. And if we’re not winning, we’re unpopular, the war is unpopular, we’re bankrupt, it’s expensive, it’s hard to see how we keep that many troops for as long as we once said we would.
MS. IFILL: And U.S. troops, I assume they fear that they are in danger. And that’s why we’ve seen so many quick apologies about this this week.
MR. DREAZEN: Exactly. In an attempt to sort of tie it off before it gets worse, and what you’ve seen instead is it just blows up more than it might have done even beforehand because now it’s publicly acknowledged to have taken place.
MS. IFILL: Did the apologies work?
MR. DREAZEN: So far not at all.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Yochi – thank you everybody very much. It’s a very interesting program as always. Thank you also.
Our conversation has to end for now, but it continues online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra where we talk about everything we didn’t get to here, including what’s next in one other hotspot: Iran.
We’ll be keeping daily track of next week’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona on air and online at the PBS NewsHour. And you can also read what our panelists are writing about that and other topics all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And happy 50th anniversary to KLRU in Austin. You were a great host last night. It was a funky party. And we’ll see you next week on Washington Week. Goodnight.