Romney Motors To Victories, Santorum Slides Back

Mitt Romney fended off Rick Santorum on Wednesday, winning the Arizona and Michigan primary races. The two have been vying for the top spot, but both candidates have been prone to gaffes. Host Michel Martin talks about the showdown with GOP strategist Ron Christie and Santorum supporter Bob Vander Plaats.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Google has announced a change to its privacy policy, a change that will allow the Internet giant to learn more about who you are based on what you do online with its services. We'll have more information on the change and what steps you can take if you don't agree with it.

That's in just a few minutes. But first, back to the presidential campaign, with Republican candidates competing for the right to challenge President Obama squared off last night in two big primaries in Arizona and Michigan. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney walked away with wins in both. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum placed a close second in Michigan and a distant second in Arizona.

We wanted to know just how last night's results are shaping the conversations going on in Republican circles so we've called upon two Republicans who are no strangers to our air. Ron Christie is the founder and president of Christie Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Also with us is Bob Vander Plaats. He is the president and CEO of the Iowa-based organization called The Family Leader, which advocates for a conservative posture on social issues and he personally endorsed Rick Santorum back in December.

Welcome back to both of you. It's good to talk to both of you again.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Yeah, it's good to be with you Michel.

MARTIN: So Ron, let me just start with you. How did Mitt Romney pull off that win in Michigan? I mean he was favored there to begin with. It is his home state after all. His father was a very popular governor there back in the day but, you know, Rick Santorum really challenged him hard for primacy there. How did he pull it off?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, there's the settled phrase Michel that says money can't buy you love but money can certainly buy Mitt Romney the organization, campaign spots and the ability to take down his opponent which I think he did last night. I think Governor Romney was also benefited by some gaffs committed by Senator Santorum. I think Santorum made a big mistake by saying that the president was a snob for wanting all kids to go to college, and I think Senator Santorum, while I agree with many of his social positions, got embroiled in a controversy dealing with contraception and women's rights and whatnot that detracted from the issue that I think he had most salience on when he was talking about, which was the economy.

So good win for Romney in both states last night and it's on to Super Tuesday.

MARTIN: Let me play the clip of what you're talking about. Rick Santorum's comment about college education and President Obama's desire for students to go. Well, we'll just play it in case people aren't sure what you're talking about. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There're good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor.

MARTIN: Bob Vander Plaats, have to point out that Rick Santorum has three degrees. He's got a college degree, an MBA and also a Juris Doctor. He's a lawyer. First, I wanted to ask first of all, how do you interpret his showing in the primaries last night and what do you think of comments like this? Do you consider that a gaff or just a man speaking his mind?

PLAATS: Well, first of all I thought his showing last night was excellent. I mean, everybody needs to remember that, I mean, Michigan is Romney's home state. It's his state. His dad was governor of that state. And I think last night's close win for Mitt Romney says way more about Romney's reluctance amongst conservative voters than it does anything else. So, I think Romney has a long ways to go to sill up a conservative base to become the nominee.

And I think Santorum's making his case why he should be the alternative. I think Ron would agree with us and Michel I think, you know, sometimes its not what you say but it might be how you say what you say. And so, maybe I would have counseled Senator Santorum, you know, maybe there's some better words to use, some better phrases to use to show a disconnect of President Obama's wanting to control a person's life, whether it be the Catholic Church or your individual life about higher education.

I do believe Senator Santorum believes in higher education and, yeah, I think he believes it's a key to a successful future. So, you know, sometimes you get caught up in the moment and you probably play to the audience. But I think Santorum is a very real threat to Romney in the nomination process and I think polls are bearing out that Santorum does well against Obama in a general election match up.

MARTIN: So just to clarify. You feel that in a way he won even though he lost because he fought the anticipated front-runner to a draw essentially. So that is on his in his side and you think these comments like this say what? And just another one that's caught people's attention that Ron Christie also spoke about. He was asked on ABC's "This Week" that, you know, the flagship public affairs program on ABC News, how he - how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing and Senator Santorum said he disagreed with the absolute separation between church and state outlined by President Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

And candidate Kennedy, he said reading this speech made him want to throw up. So, again, gaff or just a man speaking his mind?

PLAATS: Well, I think he's speaking his mind. He's being transparent and again it may not be what he is saying but it might be how he said it and sometimes, you know, we all I was a candidate for governor here in the state of Iowa. Sometimes you do get caught up and you say something that you probably wish you could ratchet back a little bit. But I, again, I do believe the reason the people of Michigan rallied around him versus rallying around Governor Romney and just giving him a secure victory is they know that they can trust Santorum and I still there's a trust gap between the conservatives and Mitt Romney trying to get this nomination.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, do you agree? You think there's a trust gap?

CHRISTIE: I do, I think it's born out by the fact that Governor Romney, while he's locked up a lot of conservative endorsements for politicians across the country, I still think there's a sense amongst the conservative electorate of we need to make sure that Governor Romney stands his positions. What he claims are his core principles are true, and I think that's why it's taken him this far to be on the way to securing the nomination. But he still has a fair amount of time and votes yet to go.

MARTIN: We're talking about the results from last night's primaries with two Republican strategists, thought leaders. Ron Christie is a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Bob Vander Plaats is with the Iowa-based conservative group The Family Leader. Mitt Romney has also had his share of foot-in-the-mouth moments. Ron Christie, I think you'd probably agree with that.

CHRISTIE: I would.

MARTIN: We have a bit of tape from last week when he spoke to members of the Detroit Economic Club. Just play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually.

MARTIN: I think the reason that the people keep looking at that comment is I don't know that there's so much thinking about the Republican primary but they're thinking about the general election, and when you look at that, Ron Christie, is that just, you know, as Bob Vander Plaats was saying, you know, just look, in the heat of the moment people say things that just, you know, their candidates have to talk a lot, and which means the more you talk the more likely you are to say something.

But do you think that, that bespeaks of sort of a real serious weakness?

CHRISTIE: I don't think it's so much it's a serious weakness, but it's a pattern that Governor Romney has participated in unfortunately of and sort off-the-cuff remarks that folks - and you know how this works they can always come back with a soundbite to get you. I remember back to his bet question with Governor Perry, where he said I bet you $10,000, and folks said well, gosh, I can't really bet that amount of money. And you combine that with his comment about the cars and it reinforces a stereotype whether it's justified or not - and I don't think it is - that Governor Romney is out of touch with most ordinary folks and he's out of touch with working-class people, and he needs to do a better job moving forward of ensuring that people don't think that he's Richie Rich and the presidential candidate who really can't relate to ordinary Americans.

MARTIN: And Bob Vander Plaats, to that end, Rick Santorum has been tracking well among Republican women, but there I just wonder if you were concerned even though you share his perspective on many of these issues that some of the ways he's expressed himself about women in combat, for example, issues around contraception. Are you worried at all that, that maybe an Achilles' heel come November with independent women and with Democratic women because there already is a gender gap as we know in the general election with women, you know, trending Democratic and that's been true for quite some time?

PLAATS: No, I don't believe that's going to be an issue, 'cause, again, I think when you're hiring or electing a president and CEO of this country - and that's what we're doing. We're actually hiring somebody. The first tenet you want to look at is - can I trust that person? And what the women, and what the men and others are going to look at - they're going to say, you know, I can trust Rick Santorum.

If I can trust him, even though I may disagree with him on some certain issues, but I can trust him to lead then on limited government, I can trust him to lead on setting the stage for a vibrant economy. I can trust him to lead on an international stage. So I think what Santorum really has going for him, why people, I think, like him is they can trust him and at least he's transparent. He's not trying to play to a certain audience because it's a certain campaign.

MARTIN: Finally Ron, last night, news broke that Maine Senator Olympia Snowe will not be seeking reelection. She is considered one of the last remaining moderates, really, on the hill, you know, period, in either house. And she says partisan bickering is the main reason why she doesn't want to run again. This is her third term as a Republican strategist, having kind of - taking the long view here. What does this mean for the Republicans' chances - Republican Party's chances of taking back the Senate in the fall?

CHRISTIE: Well, I still think the Republican Party has a strong opportunity to take back the Senate. The Democrats have to defend something along the order of 22 seats and Republicans have to defend nine. But what it underscores, I think, is a changing of the dynamics and the demographics of the folks who are going to Washington, both on the right and on the left.

I think that the center - people like Senator Snowe, people like her co-Maine Senator, Susan Collins - they're a dying breed in the Senate and we need more diversity of voices. We need more diversity of thought in the Republican Party and just having a conservative base. While I might be very, very conservative, I think you do need ideological balance and ideological perspectives that differ from just being strictly conservative.

MARTIN: Bob Vander Plaats, a final thought from you on that? Do you agree? You think that's true that more diversity of thought is what's needed in the Republican Party, even though you are yourself a strong conservative?

PLAATS: Well, I am a strong conservative. I'm also someone who likes to get things done. And I think what you're seeing is you're seeing a polarization in this country where both sides are tired of politics as usual. And so what they really want to do is if we elect somebody we want to know that they say what they believe and they believe what they say and they're actually going to act on it.

And that's what I think gives the upper hand to Santorum right now over Romney. It's just one of those things you have to be aware of if you're a candidate or if you're looking at the environment. People are just, quite frankly, tired of politics as usual and I think that's what you saw with Ms. Snowe, saying I'm not going to be a part of this anymore.

MARTIN: Bob Vander Plaats is the president and CEO of the Iowa-based organization, The Family Leader, and as we mentioned, he personally endorsed Rick Santorum last December on a personal level, not as a leader of his organization. He joined us from Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines.

Also with us from New York, Ron Christie, founder and president of Christie Strategies, a media and political strategy firm. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He joined us from our New York bureau, where he frequently joins us.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHRISTIE: Happy Leap Day.

PLAATS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, changes are coming for users of Gmail, YouTube, Picasa and dozens of other services from Google. The Web giant says it is now going to combine all that personal information you've been sending out. Google says it still has your back in protecting your privacy, but critics aren't so sure.

CECILIA KANG: Anyone from the outside, a third party, can go in and access what Google has amalgamated into a more complete picture of an individual.

MARTIN: Some tips for protecting your privacy in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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