Week In Politics: Republican Presidential Candidates

Audie Cornish speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, of the New York Times.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

South Carolina isn't just known for picking winners. It's been called the firewall for its ability to halt candidates on a roll. And there is, of course, a lot at stake for the candidates who are looking to push Mitt Romney off the path to the nomination. Here to talk more about it, our regular Friday political commentators David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Gentlemen, welcome back.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So let's briefly start with Rick Perry. It seems like every election season there's sort of a super hyped candidate who doesn't quite catch and this time it was him. We said goodbye to him this week. Does his exit even matter?

DIONNE: Well, his exit will matter in South Carolina, not only because whatever pieces of the conservative vote he was getting are now free to go presumably to Newt Gingrich. All his ads that he was running against Gingrich and Santorum are now off the air. That also helps Gingrich. I think, on paper, he's the guy we should be talking about as the nominee. He occupied the perfect place in the Republican Party to unite the Tea Party elements and the religious right, but there are times when he seemed intent on making President Bush look like a combination of Albert Einstein and Hubert Humphrey.

I mean, he couldn't get his act together in those early debates. He was very conservative.

CORNISH: David, any parting words for Perry?

BROOKS: Yeah, my 12-year-old son asked for his autograph and he wrote, do you homework. And I wish Rick Perry had done his homework. It exacts a lesson against coming in late. It helps to come in early when nobody's paying attention so you can practice your routines.

CORNISH: Another thing that was talked about a lot this week was wealth among the GOP candidates. Mitt Romney, of course, has been the standout, talk about his tax return, the tax rate and everything, but is this really a conversation about how much money these guys have or whether they can identify with, like, blue collar voters?

BROOKS: Right. I think it's a question of personality. In the fall, both Obama and Romney, assuming they both get there, want to talk about success and their different versions of it. My view of Romney is very different from most people. Most people look at the guy's face and think he's the bad guy in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. I look at his family history, which is really a story of struggle, of his family moving from Illinois, to Utah, to Arizona, to Mexico, to California, constantly being knocked down, constantly struggling.

And I look at him less as sort of a lost scion and more as a relentlessly driven immigrant kid. And his experience is not sort of the George H.W. Bush experience. So to me, what's remarkable about him is not his wealth, but his ferocious and relentless drive and the desire to be accepted in America.

DIONNE: David may be entirely right about that family history, but I can't recall any candidate more awkward in talking about issues related to his personal wealth and making gaffes like saying he didn't get much money from speeches and it turned out it was 350, $370,000 and just not getting people's reactions when he says these things. And so, I think a lot of these were self-inflicted wounds. And then he has just been terrible on this issue of releasing his taxes.

A campaign ought to figure out where it wants to be on that, have a position and stick with it. And he has really hurt himself just on the issue of releasing his income taxes.

CORNISH: And, of course, David, some of that personal back story goes into some Mormon history in Romney's family that maybe he doesn't want to talk about on the trail.

BROOKS: Right. It's a disadvantage for his campaign that he can't about his back-story because of the Mormonism. I'd love to have sat in the meeting when his staff said to him, hey, what are you gonna say about your tax reform? I suspect he told them, hey, I've got it under control because it's a subject he didn't want to talk about, even with them, and they didn't want to press him about. 'Cause it's their job to press him and get a script.

CORNISH: One of - or the bombshell of the week involves something that I know I didn't expect to talk about this season, open marriage. Discuss. Marianne Gingrich talking about her ex-husband. What happened here?

DIONNE: Very ugly marriage. Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is thinking, what did I resign for? Apparently, my voters like this. Because it has not hurt him at all. He, you know, he was having an affair while he was attacking Bill Clinton for having an affair with somebody on his staff. I think it's a perfectly legitimate character issue to talk about. But he used it in the debate to trounce the media, which is, for a lot of Republicans, the unifying emotion, the desire to trounce the media and it's worked fabulously.

CORNISH: And before we go further, we actually have a clip of that at the debate. Here is Gingrich talking with debate moderator, John King, who has just asked this question about his ex-wife's comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Guys, I mean, maybe the question was ill-timed. But, I mean, it seems like Gingrich only can win off of these things.

DIONNE: Who knew that a candidate could turn open marriage into a winning issue at South Carolina? This campaign is constantly surprising us. But you knew that Gingrich was going to come out and try to blame this all on the media and attack the media, because it's worked for him before. He's been running against the media in all of the debates.

And, you know, some of his surge in South Carolina began when he attacked Juan Williams. And that attack - this one I sort of think of as normal politics, that one was very disturbing 'cause there were racial overtones there. Juan was challenging - Juan Williams was challenging him directly on this. And there was a kind of almost, I thought, a little bit of an ugly kind of glee in the crowd in response to that.

But in this case, he did what he had to do on the open marriage issue. And I think for now, he's pushed it aside.

CORNISH: And it's interesting because, I mean, basically Gingrich has put his personal redemption and his background out there. So, I'm wondering even if he gets a bump now, is this going to kind of have residual effects further down the trail with his history just hanging out there?

BROOKS: It means we will have a long primary fight. I think right now we're guaranteed to go to Florida, probably go for another couple months. I still find it very hard to believe that a politician with a 27 percent national approval rating is going to get the nomination. So it'll prolong it. Still hard to see how Romney loses this thing unless there's something hidden in those tax returns.

CORNISH: Well, we'll know in the next day or so whether or not this race continues for the next weeks - for the next few weeks.

David Brooks of the New York Times and EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, thanks so much to both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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