General Election In Focus: Candidates Strategize

Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the intense Republican primary race and President Obama's message of populism in his State of the Union address last week.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the fireworks between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, so as we just heard in Don Gonyea's piece, the rhetoric really has gotten very heated. It's just a couple days from the Florida primary. Mara, from where you sit, how is the race looking right now?

LIASSON: Well, the Gingrich surge has ended although he's still leading in the national polls. In Florida, which matters, where Republicans vote, as you said, on Tuesday, Romney is now solidly ahead and that's due to a number of factors which you just heard. Romney and his affiliated superPAC have launched a withering multi-million dollar assault of attack ads on Gingrich. And this has happened before. When Gingrich had his first surge in Iowa, they were able to squelch that.

This time, it doesn't look like there's enough time or an opportunity for Gingrich to bounce back like he did in South Carolina. I think if Romney wins Florida he'll be back to looking like the presumptive nominee.

MARTIN: But, Mara, it's not just Romney levying these attacks. The GOP establishment has really come out hitting Gingrich very hard. The latest was former presidential candidate Bob Dole, right? Can Gingrich use all these attacks to his advantage?

LIASSON: Well, he's certainly trying. Sarah Palin has endorsed him. Herman Cain has endorsed him. They're very popular with the Tea Party. Palin said that he's being crucified by Romney and his establishment allies. Gingrich is now running a full-throated insurgent campaign against the elites, which includes the Republican establishment, which he says is no different from any other elite - whether it's Barack Obama or Wall Street.

This is a role in which Gingrich is very comfortable. He did come to power as an insurgent bomb thrower, even though Romney has been attacking him as a lobbyist and a Washington insider. But even in this era of the Tea Party, the establishment wing of the Republican Party is still very powerful.

MARTIN: And Gingrich's last couple debate performances have really suffered while Mitt Romney has really been able to land some pretty solid punches. Let's take a listen.

MITT ROMNEY: Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them, to influence other people throughout Washington, encouraging them to not to dismantle these two entities. I think was an enormous mistake. I think instead, we should have had a whistleblower and not a horn tooter.

LIASSON: You know, what happened in these two debates in Florida was extraordinary. We had a complete role reversal. Gingrich had been the alpha dog in South Carolina debates; that's a large part of how he won there. He was commanding and combative. He attacked the media. Romney was stumbling, couldn't get his answer straight on his tax returns.

But then Romney hired a new debate coach, Brett O'Donnell. He used to run the famous Liberty University debate team. He's worked for a lot of Republican candidates. And Romney's performance improved. He was relentlessly aggressive in the Florida debates. But also there was a bigger change and it was inexplicable. Gingrich didn't stand his ground. There is a case to be made against Romney. But for some reason, in Tampa and Jacksonville debates, Gingrich did make it.

MARTIN: So, what's the upshot of all of this? When you see a bruising primary battle like this, does this hurt or help the candidates when they go up against President Obama in the fall?

LIASSON: Well, right now you'd have to say it's hurting. Romney's negatives have gone up. Latest Wall Street Journal poll showed that his favorable ratings went from 30 to 24 percent - not very high to begin with. Another Washington Post/ABC poll showed that Romney's favorability with independent voters had gone down 17 points just in the last couple of weeks.

The Obama team thinks that all the information that's come out in the primaries - the Swiss bank accounts, the Cayman Island accounts, Romney's comments about his income - are liabilities for him in the general. They would've come out anyway, of course, but now the Obama team has the words of Romney's rivals, Republican rivals, to use against him.

The Romney campaign thinks its good that came out now. He is time to develop a response and by the fall he'll be inoculated against these charges, that he's an out-of-touch plutocrat.

MARTIN: Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Mara, thanks so much as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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