An Update On The Presidential Race

Host Robert Siegel talks with Mara Liasson about the state of the 2012 presidential election — the latest in the GOP primary and President Obama's standing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today's Republican reversal is just one of several reasons why, for the moment at least, Mr. Obama's political situation looks a bit brighter these days. Here to discuss that and the ongoing battle for the Republican presidential nomination is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Not long ago, Mara, the 2012 political landscape looked like it tilted in favor of the Republicans. What's happened?

LIASSON: Well, the economy got a little better. Unemployment went down. The president's approval rating is heading up to 50 percent. Consumer sentiment, which is a really important indicator, jumped 10 points in the last two months. And now, in the RealClearPolitics average, Obama is beating Mitt Romney by 5.6 percent. So I would say it used to be tilted against him. Now, it looks pretty even.

SIEGEL: It appears to have helped him that there has been a Republican primary battle all this time, but it's in a lull now for the next couple of weeks before Arizona and Michigan vote. Who exactly is the frontrunner now? Is it still Mitt Romney?

LIASSON: No. It's Rick Santorum by a hair. It really is tied between Santorum and Romney. In the latest CBS-New York Times poll, Santorum had 30 percent. Romney had 27. And the question is, now that Santorum seems to be getting a majority of Tea Party and evangelical support, is he consolidating conservatives, or is he just the latest anti-Romney balloon soon to be deflated? Many Republicans think he might not be.

SIEGEL: Well, Michigan is Mitt Romney's native state. His father was the governor there. He won it in 2008. But the polls there mirror the national surveys. How important is Michigan to Mitt Romney's chances?

LIASSON: Well, it's very important, not in terms of delegates, but it is his native state. His father was the governor there. He won it in the 2008 primary. It is easy to overstate the significance of those advantages because a lot of Michigan Republicans are socially conservative, working-class voters, not unlike Iowa, but the optics of getting beat in your native state and a state that will be a very important battleground in the general election are bad for Romney's claim of electability. And that's why he's going to campaign really hard there. He's got an ad up in Michigan where he says Michigan has been my home, and this is personal.

SIEGEL: So what's really important for Mitt Romney is not to lose in Michigan is what you're saying.

LIASSON: That's right.

SIEGEL: How does he beat Rick Santorum then? Does he go negative at him the way he beat Newt Gingrich?

LIASSON: Well, that's the big question. Does he dump millions of dollars of negative ads on him? He seems poised to do that. He still has tremendous organizational and financial advantages. His superPAC has already bought about $1.5 million of ads in eight states. But there is a cost to going negative. There is a cost to being seen as the big mean Mitt machine. Right now, in Michigan, Santorum's favorables are 67 percent to 23 unfavorable. Romney's in Michigan are 49 percent favorable to 39 unfavorable.

So the other difference between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum is Santorum is just not a target-rich environment the way Gingrich was. Romney can't run to his left saying that Santorum is too conservative to beat Barack Obama, although that might be true because Romney's own conservative credentials are so suspect. I think the tack they're going to take against Santorum is that he's a Washington insider. He voted for earmarks and to raise the debt limit. It's unclear if that will work.

But what the Romney campaign says that Santorum's numbers are good because no one knows him. That means he hasn't been defined yet, and they plan to start soon.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson on the state of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

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