GOP Frontrunners Spar In Lead Up To Iowa Caucus

Newt Gingrich has surged in the polls, but will trading jabs with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney pay off? In this week's political chat, host Michel Martin speaks with journalists Joy-Ann Reid and Mary Kate Cary about the race to win the GOP presidential nomination.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, most people probably know that having a mentor can make a huge difference in the workplace. So why, according to a study, are so few women getting that experience? We'll try to come up with some answers. That's our "Money Coach" conversation, and it's coming up later in the program. But first, while temperatures dropped in much of the country, the race for the Republican nomination for president seems to be heating up, as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney sets his sights on the new front-runner, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile members of Congress are feeling the heat as a defense bill faces a veto threat over provisions about the detention of terrorist suspects. Here to talk with us about these stories and more are Mary Kate Cary. She is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Welcome back, thanks for coming.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us, Joy-Ann Reid. She is the managing editor of theGrio.com. That's an online news source. She's a contributor, also, to MSNBC. Joy-Ann, thank you so much for joining us.

JOY-ANN REID: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, let's start off with some news that broke yesterday. Newt Gingrich's newly installed Iowa political director, Craig Berman, resigned. Apparently, he made some comments to a focus group that suggested that evangelicals might not vote for Mitt Romney because they think Mormonism is a cult. So Mary Kate, what is - is this just one of those crazy things that happens in a campaign, or do you think that this is a sign of something bigger - like, for example, that Gingrich might not be ready for prime time, which is something that a lot of people have been saying, even though he's been in prime time before.

CARY: Yeah, in this particular case, the guy was only on the staff for a week, and the nature of his comments made it pretty clear he had to be fired right away. He said something like, a thousand pastors were ready to rise up against the cult of Mormonism, and you know, I don't think there was - sort of a no-brainer.

But having said that, it feeds this narrative amongst the press that - what you're saying, Gingrich is not ready for prime time; he's unpredictable; he's hypocritical. One minute he's saying the Reagan rule - thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican - and then stuff like this happens. It just feeds the unpredictable nature of the Gingrich story. And as he gets more and more unpredictable, it's better and better for the other candidates.

MARTIN: Joy-Ann, you know, one of the things that struck me is that once again, the whole issue of Romney's religious faith emerged - which I thought had been kind of dead and buried.

REID: Yeah. Been there, done that.

MARTIN: Been there, done that. So do we know whether Republican voters in Iowa - potential Republican voters in Iowa - do see that as an issue?

REID: Well, you know, I actually think that this comment, and having to dismiss the Iowa political guy by the Gingrich campaign - it gets to an underlying issue that I have always thought was there, under the surface. You know, in 2008, you weren't supposed to say certain voters would not vote for a black presidential candidate. And this year, you're not supposed to say certain Republican-based voters will not vote for a Mormon. But you know what? I think that happens to be true.

And I think that in states like Iowa and in South Carolina, where you have a large evangelical voting base, I suspect that there are voters who have a problem with Romney's Mormonism. And you're not supposed to talk about it, but I think this guy committed what Stephen Colbert might call an act of truthiness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, why do you say people aren't supposed to talk about it? I mean, who says you're not supposed to talk about it?

REID: It's sort of politically incorrect. And there are all these polls that show well, only 20-something percent of voters say that it's a problem. But you know what? People lie to pollsters. When it's an issue that's uncomfortable - like discriminating against someone else based on religion - people don't tell the truth, and I just have never believed that it's as low as 20 percent.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of - you were - Mary Kate, you brought up that question of, thou shall not speak ill of another Republican. Somebody didn't read that, that part of the Republican Bible because Newt Gingrich has been trading barbs with Romney all this week. Romney has said that - he's actually said this recently, in an interview with the Washington Post, sort of political reporters - that he is not a real conservative. And he also said that he's one of those politicians who, quote, go to Washington to serve the people, and stay there to serve themselves.

He's been pounding him on the $1.6 million in consulting fees that the former speaker took from the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. And this is how Newt Gingrich responded, on Monday in New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

NEWT GINGRICH: I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to then listen to him. And I'll bet you $10 - not 10,000 - that he won't take the offer.

MARTIN: Now, of course, he was referring to Romney's career with the investment group - with the consulting group. It's a consulting - management consulting firm, Bain Capital, that also - and he's also talking about the - which is now widely perceived as a gaffe, where Romney tried to bet Rick Perry $10,000. And they all make it - something like this. So anyway, Mary Kate, so - but on the other hand, he also sent this letter to his staffers saying - imploring them to keep a positive message. I mean, come on, is that possible, really, in a hard-fought campaign? I don't...

CARY: Yeah, it's a nice idea, but there is nothing wrong with contrasting yourself - especially on the issues - with other candidates. I mean, obviously, you don't want to get into personal insults and name-calling, and things like that. But a month out from Iowa and New Hampshire, there's nothing wrong with drawing a distinction between you and your opponents. Now, as far as the $10,000 bet goes, I do think that Mitt Romney was making a good point because Rick Perry was wrong on the substance of it.

But he shouldn't have put a number on it. He should have said, I bet my bottom dollar; I bet you dollars to doughnuts. He could have gone back to "Laugh-In" and said, you bet your bippy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: He could have said something other than 10,000 bucks. So it was a legitimate opening for Gingrich. The problem is, Gingrich drove a truck through it and made comments that were anti-capitalist, anti-free market; things that you would have heard from the far left and Paul Krugman about, you know, laying employees off and bankrupting companies. And that was a strategic mistake. He went too far...

MARTIN: You really think you have to be far left to think that the basic goal of these groups is to, you know, advantage capital at the expense of labor? You really think so?

CARY: I don't think - I think there was a great opportunity to talk about the power of the free market, and he shouldn't be using it against Newt - I mean, Mitt Romney. It should be a pro-free market, pro message from all Republican candidates. They shouldn't be - let the left go after Romney. I think the Republican Party's better off in a pro-capitalist, pro-free market message.

MARTIN: Joy-Ann, how do you read that exchange, and what affect do you think it's having on the race so far?

REID: Well first of all, I think somebody - I'm just going to go on a limb and say somebody as awkward as Mitt Romney better not get into saying, you bet your bippy. I would advise him against saying that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REID: In addition to that, I think that this is the bizarre-o world in which I'm about to agree with Glenn Beck, the right-wing radio host who called Newt Gingrich a poor - kind of - almost progressive.

Don't listen to what Newt Gingrich says when he's scripted. Listen to what he says when he's unscripted. His initial instinct was to say Paul Ryan's Medicare-ending program was social engineering from the right, and was suicidal. His initial instinct is to say that bankrupting companies and laying off the employees is a bad thing. This is sort of a Jack Kemp Republican disguising himself as a conservative, and Romney sort of has, you know, is becoming the victim of that. But on the right, the core right-wing message, they're in favor of taking over companies and laying off all the employees because essentially, the core right-wing message is a conservative message - is kind of anti-labor. It's pro-capitalist; that's the message.

CARY: No, they're not in favor of ...

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: ...laying people off. I think that it gets distorted, but there is an advantage to be had in promoting the private sector over government intervention, and that's...

REID: No, but the idea of - I'm sorry, I don't...

MARTIN: Joy-Ann?

REID: I don't mean pro laying people off just for the sake of it, but saying that the end of capital - the purpose of capital, right, is to advantage investors. And investors are advantaged when you reduce the labor force. It's a tried and true principle on Wall Street that when a company does layoffs, they actually improve their position on the market because they're more efficient - so that the capitalist message, the free-market message is if what you've got to do to make more profit is to lay off more employees, you do that, and that's a good thing. That's capitalism. That's the core conservative message.

CARY: I think expanding and growing businesses, and hiring more workers, is good for the economy and good for the middle class. I don't think...

REID: But that's not what Romney did.

CARY: Oh, sure he did. For as many times as he had to lay people off, he created more jobs - Bain Capital did.

REID: Actually, that's not borne out by the stats...

MARTIN: Which is...

REID: Romney's company, Bain Capital, bought, chopped up and sold companies, and in doing so, they laid people off and they made more profit. That's what they were there to do. That's what Bain Capital was there to do.

MARTIN: This is the debate that we should be having, right? These - instead of like...

REID: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know, name-calling can be kind of amusing, right, if one does not direct it at us. But that is the debate we should be having, is it not?

REID: Right.

MARTIN: Which brings me to - and before we - if you just joined us, we're talking about this week's top political stories with Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of TheGrio.com - that's an online news source - and Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former Republican speechwriter - Republican presidential speechwriter.

So before we go, the debate that we should be having, and that we will probably have in the fall...

REID: Hopefully. Right.

MARTIN: ...maybe - unless, you know, Newt Gingrich rips off his shirt and says, I'm a secret Democrat - right? Which he...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: It's entirely possible.

MARTIN: Which Glenn Beck thinks that he is. How's President Obama faring in all of this? There's a new report. I don't know. Joy-Ann, do you - you know about this. MSNBC had a new poll out just today or yesterday. How does President Obama match up in the midst of all this - kind of causerie on the Republican side?

REID: Right. Well, I think what's been true all along is still true. The toughest opponent that the president could face would be Mitt Romney, because he comes across as more moderate. He's more appealing to swing voters - although I think he'd have some problems in the general election, too, because he is the 1 percent, and that is sort of the theme of this election - is the 1 percent versus the 99 percent.

But if you put Newt Gingrich in that chair and you make him the nominee, your biggest thank you is going to come from the Barack Obama re-election campaign. Newt Gingrich is going to not play well in the general election. And he has the tendency to be indisciplined in his message, so God only knows what he's going to say and do.

So I think that, you know, if you're on the Obama campaign team, you're rooting for Newt Gingrich at this point.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, a final thought on that?

CARY: Yeah. The MSNBC poll shows exactly what Joy-Ann is saying - that against a generic Republican, it's actually very close between Obama and a generic. Once you get to an actual name, Newt trails by 11 points; Romney trails by two points. And so it's...

MARTIN: How do you read that?

CARY: I read it as Romney's got problems with primary voters, but he does fine in the general.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. More to talk about. I'm sorry we didn't get to the whole question of, the last American troops stationed in Iraq are leaving this week, and we need to talk about what that might mean for...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...our own, sort of politics down the road. So more to come.

CARY: Stay tuned.

MARTIN: Stay tuned. Joy-Ann...

REID: You bet your bippy.

MARTIN: That's it. Oh, no, you're dating us. I'm pretending I don't even know what that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of TheGrio.com, and a contributor to MSNBC. She joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio, Mary Kate Cary, a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARY: Thank you.

REID: Great to be here.

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