On Campaign Trail, Which Dark Horse Racing Ahead?

GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are battling for the lead as they approach the Iowa caucuses in 2012. But Iowa has historically boosted dark horse candidates. Host Michel Martin discusses the latest political news with former Obama administration staff member Corey Ealons and GOP strategist Ron Christie.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We have our Friday features for you. In Faith Matters, we'll hear about a couple of stories involving the Catholic Church. We're going to hear about a new English translation of the Mass and how that's going over. We'll also hear about how a provision in the healthcare overhaul law is causing a rift between the Obama administration and some in the church. Journalist, author and blogger Michael Sean Winters is going to tell us more in a few minutes. But first to our political chat, and we could not help but notice that tomorrow will mark a month until the official start of the primary season.

January 3rd, 2012 is the date for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. That is a fact that has not been lost on current Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Both have been flexing their campaign muscle in the Hawkeye state this week, and Iowa, as you probably know, is famous for putting those dark-horse candidates on the map, and so we wonder if that could happen again a month from now. Also, President Obama has been making his pitch as the best candidate to fix the faltering economy. We wonder how that message is going over.

To answer these questions and more, we've called upon two political insiders to give us the scoop once again. Ron Christie is a Republican. He's the founder and president of Christie Strategies, a media and political strategy firm. He's also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Also with us once again, Corey Ealons. He is a Democrat. He's a senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's also the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration. So, we have two former White House aides with us.

Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

RON CHRISTIE: Good to be with you, as always.

COREY EALONS: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So, let's start with the current frontrunner, Mitt Romney. He debuted an ad aimed at Iowa caucusgoers earlier this week. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

MITT ROMNEY: I spent my life in the private sector. I've competed with companies around the world. I've learned something about how it is that economies grow. We're not going to balance the budget just by pretending that all we have to do is take out the waste. We're going to have to cut spending, and I'm in favor of cutting spending.

MARTIN: So, Ron I'll go to you first. Effective: yes, no?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it is. I think he's trying to portray himself as sort of the outsider candidate, the outside the establishment, you know, I've been a successful business guy. I know how it works - and contrasting that against Newt Gingrich: career politician, he's part of the problem. I'm the solution. So I think it's a pretty good ad.

MARTIN: And, well, you think it's aimed at Newt Gingrich? I thought it was more aimed at Obama?

CHRISTIE: No. I think, frankly, he's tackling those on the right and those who he perceives as being his really strongest competitors. I don't think quite yet he's taking aim at President Obama in this ad. I could be wrong, but that's just my take on it.

MARTIN: Okay. Corey, your reaction?

EALONS: Michel, I've got to tell you, Mitt Romney has had the worst week of his campaign this week, and it could not have come at a worse time for him. It began at the beginning of the week with a devastating ad showing his flip-flopping delivered by the Democratic Party. Then come to the middle of the week, you have Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman both releasing Web ads with the same context. He has an awful interview with Bret Baier on Fox News, where - we learned a lot about Mitt Romney this week.

We learned that not only is he a flip-flopper, but he's also very thin-skinned, couldn't stand up to very basic questions about his record that had come forward. And the reason it's bad, because it's this week, and just as you said, we're just a little over a month away from the time when votes are going to be cast in Iowa. This is very critical, because if anybody's aware of what that calendar means, it's Mitt Romney.

MARTIN: Well it seems, though, that Democrats do accept him as the frontrunner, because they're - he is the one on whom they are training their fire at this point. What's the gist of the Democratic argument against Mitt Romney, Corey?

EALONS: Well, right now, I think it's the fact that he has no core and you can't trust a thing that he says. I mean, if you look at the core issues that have defined the American political landscape over the past 40 years, Mitt Romney has assumed a position on each side of those. I mean, the classic ad that - what will be a classic ad that the Democratic Party put out this week, Mitt versus Mitt, says it very easily and very understandably where he's flip-flopped on abortion. He's flip-flopped on immigration. He's flip-flopped on whether he even smokes or drinks. I mean, this is a guy who has no core, and I think he's very vulnerable right now. As we see, he's being attacked on the same positions. First it was Rick Perry in a debate a few months ago, and now we have, again, Huntsman and Ron Paul doing the same thing.

MARTIN: Ron, talk to me about Newt Gingrich, who's made a, what I think a lot of people would consider a surprising surge. You know, people all but counted him out, I think it's fair to say, because he just seemed to have made those kinds of working mistakes that you wouldn't expect from somebody who's not a rookie - you know, going on a vacation with his wife at a critical time period. The news of his - I still don't know how this came out about how he had this rather large credit line at Tiffany's.

CHRISTIE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Not a good look at a time when you've got a lot of people unemployed, although those numbers are getting better. But this week, the surprise for a lot of people, the endorsement of New Hampshire's largest paper, the Des Moines Register, says that - wait a minute. This is the Des Moines Register, or is this the Iowa?

CHRISTIE: The Manchester...

MARTIN: The Manchester, forgive me, the Manchester Union Leader...

CHRISTIE: Right.

MARTIN: ...which has been an influential force in conservative, sort of, Republican politics. Obviously, New Hampshire follows Iowa. But Ron, talk to me about what you think is behind the Newt Gingrich surge, and do you think that it will last?

CHRISTIE: Well, no, I don't think it'll last. But I think there are two things at play, here. One, Governor Romney, for a number of reasons, has not been able to convince more than 25 percent of the Republican electorate that he's their guy. People still question whether he's conservative enough. People question his core convictions. People question whether or not, really, he's up to the task. On the other hand, you have people who are saying, I want to vote for anybody but Romney.

And you've seen the trot-out of the rise of Michele Bachmann, the rise of Rick Perry, then, of course, the rise of Herman Cain. I think that indicates that the Republican base still isn't quite sold on Governor Romney, so they keep trying to bring out and trot out someone else who they can say: Maybe we can rally around this person. But at the end of the day, I think that the speaker has a lot of rough edges that still need to be rounded out. And once we get through New Hampshire and Iowa, I'm just not sure that he's going to be the guy who's going to be standing at the top of the pack. I still think it's Romney's to lose.

MARTIN: You still think it's Romney's to lose. And are you doing work for him, Ron?

CHRISTIE: I'm not. He's a friend of mine. I helped him out in the last cycle, but I am agnostic on this campaign cycle. I have far too much of a life that I want to enjoy rather than getting involved in another campaign.

EALONS: That's saying a lot, Ron, that you're not involved in this cycle. That's really saying a lot.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. That is a question, though, that we would have. Is that indicative of - is your lack of involvement indicative of a lack of fondness or affection for what you have as your choices - not to put you on the spot. I'm sorry.

CHRISTIE: You guys know me, both. No, you guys know me both. I mean, between running a small business, teaching up at Harvard and finishing my third book, I just have enough on my plate that I just physically can't be everywhere and do everything all at the same time.

MARTIN: All right. If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're speaking with Ron Christie, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He also has a lot going on as well, as he told you just now. Also with us, Corey Ealons, former director of African-American media for the Obama administration. He's also now in the private sector as a communications strategist. Corey, let's talk about the other candidate in the race.

EALONS: There is one other. Absolutely.

MARTIN: President Obama, yes. He's out there. He was in Scranton, Pennsylvania earlier this week. You know, unemployment in Scranton is at 9.7 percent. That's the highest in Pennsylvania, although today we did get some new numbers saying that the unemployment rate nationally seems to be doing a little better. It's dipped below nine for the first time in a while. Let me just play a short clip of Louis Sowka. He spoke with NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley earlier this week about President Obama's chances.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

LOUIS SOWKA: I believe there's even a lot of Democrats that are disappointed in what's going on. I think he's got a good shot if he tells us what he's going to do to change the economy. That's the number-one thing. I personally haven't seen anything for it to get boosted. It needs to be boosted.

MARTIN: Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, Corey.

EALONS: No. I tell you, here's how this thing is shaping at this point. The White House is doing a very good job of establishing the contrast between what President Obama is doing right now and what any of the candidates on the Republican side of the bar will do, in addition to the folks who are leading the House on the GOP side right now.

He's establishing the contrast that I have put forward a plan. I have bills in place. All we need to do is move forward. But unfortunately, we have folks who are on the far right who have decided that they would rather allow the country to go down the toilet rather than implement these policies that we've put forward.

The thing that he's done, despite what Mitt Romney charges - apparently, he's not paying attention. He's traveling the country, telling his story, and that's exactly why he was in Scranton, Pennsylvania this week telling the American people exactly what's going on and what needs to be done here in Washington to get the country moving forward again.

MARTIN: Ron?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's remarkable. You know, the president's going around drawing contrast between his Republican opponents and what they would do. It's remarkable that President Obama hasn't talked about what he has done. He has no record. The Obama health care bill is one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation we've seen in recent American history. The president's own economists said that, if we pass the stimulus bill, that we will have unemployment beneath eight percent, and yet, if we do nothing, unemployment will be at about 8.6 percent. Well, that's where it is now.

We've spent a trillion dollars taking his experiment and taking his policies, and they've proven that they haven't worked. So the president doesn't have a record to run on. He doesn't have anything positive to say. He's seeking to divide Americans by race, by class and by ideological differences rather than uniting and saying here's what we can do together. I think it's a pretty pathetic campaign election strategy.

MARTIN: Corey, I have to let you answer that.

EALONS: Well, I appreciate that. Ron, let's be very clear. Independent experts have said very clearly that the policies that this president has put in place in his administration basically stopped the bleeding, served as a tourniquet on an economy that was bleeding when he came in the door.

And as much as conservatives and Republicans hate to talk about it, the fact of the matter is we had zero net job growth during the previous administration, and we were bleeding 750,000 jobs a month when we came - when this president came into office.

And so now, the bulk of the work has been recalibrating this economy and getting us moving again and putting policies in place that will help us stop the bleeding. Now, the proposals in place are designed to help us move forward. But again, you have an intransigence on the GOP side that is determined not to allow that to happen for political reasons, I believe, as we go into this next season coming up in 2012.

MARTIN: Well, there's obviously going to be a lot more to talk about in the days and months ahead. One person we haven't talked about a lot, because we've talked about him so much, is Herman Cain - Ron Christie, news of a long 13-year extramarital affair. Does he - by this time next week, are we going to be talking about Herman Cain at all? Is he in or is he out, in your view?

CHRISTIE: Oh, let me put to you this way. If I had a 13-year relationship where I was paying bills for a woman that my wife Jennifer didn't know about, I think my train would be in the station. And I think that's where he'll be.

MARTIN: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EALONS: Not only would my train be in the station, I wouldn't be sleeping in the house if it were me, so...

MARTIN: Well, we'll see.

EALONS: We'll see what Gloria has to say about that.

MARTIN: We'll see. Ron Christie's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's currently a fellow at Harvard University. He's teaching at the Institute of Politics, and he was with us from the studios there.

Corey Ealons was here with me in Washington, D.C. He's a senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Thank you, Michel, as always.

EALONS: Be well.

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