Romney Looks For Knockout Punch

More delegates are up for grabs as the GOP primaries move to Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington D.C. Politicos are closely watching the Badger State, where Rick Santorum is hoping for a boost from rural voters, and Mitt Romney is looking for a decisive victory. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with analysts Mary Kate Cary and Cynthia Tucker.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away today.

Coming up, a new documentary chronicles one mother's struggle to save her daughter from bulimia. Judy Avrin talked with us about her film, "Someday Melissa." That's in just a few minutes.

First, we'll follow the latest turns in the race for the White House. Voters in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. get their chance to weigh in on the Republican presidential primary tomorrow. And when they do, it will have been three months since former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stunned the field with a win in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the race.

But has he come to the end of the road? Mitt Romney is leading in polls for all of Tuesday's contests and he's surged to a commanding lead in the delegate count. Many Republican leaders have urged the other contenders to drop out so voters can rally behind Romney. But Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul vow to stay in the race for now.

Here to discuss that and other issues in the political world are two of our regular political contributors. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's currently a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. And also with us is Cynthia Tucker. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and she's now a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. It's great to be with both of you today.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to be here, Jacki.

LYDEN: Thank you for joining us. So, let's start off with the Republican primary race. As we mentioned, all the current candidates say they're in it to stay no matter what happens tomorrow. But here's Mitt Romney speaking like this part of the race is over. Let's play a quick clip of Romney from the campaign trail in Wisconsin this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: This president can't run on his record. And so, he's going to try in every way he can to divert to some other kind of attack, and try and have people disqualify our nominee, which will probably be me.

LYDEN: What do you think, Mary Kate? You've said this race has been over for a while. Do you think tomorrow really hammers the coffin nail?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Maybe if I say it often enough it'll end.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: There you go.

CARY: Yeah, I think Romney's ahead in all three states by wide margins. There's no reason to believe Santorum or Gingrich will get any delegates out of it. There's almost 100 delegates up for stake. And the next big contest is April 24th. Six states are up. Romney's ahead in five out of six of them.

The only question is Pennsylvania, and that's Santorum's home state and Romney's running even with him right now, three weeks out. There's no debates coming up. It's going to be a long three weeks of people telling Rick Santorum he needs to get out of the race.

LYDEN: Yeah, even though he discounted one poll that came out of Pennsylvania today.

CARY: Oh did he?

LYDEN: Showing him nearly even. Cynthia Tucker, we've also seen comments from the White House treating this as Mitt Romney's nomination. Do you think the Democratic establishment is banking on it?

TUCKER: Yes. But first, let me give a shout out to Mary Kate and the other four Republican voters in Washington, D.C. who will be casting their votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Right. I'm actually a Maryland resident. And...

TUCKER: Oh. Well, hey...

CARY: Yeah, there's a few of us hiding in the bushes over there across the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: It's down to four then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Yes, you know, let me in - let the listeners in on a secret. Mary Kate's right, this race has been over actually for a long, long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Thank you.

TUCKER: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are like the zombies in "The Walking Dead." They may not know it but, you know, Romney has had all of the advantages for a long, long time, including money, staff, and a ground game in many of the states that matter. And the White House has always understood that.

For a moment, they paid Rick Santorum just a little bit of attention. But the White House has always believed that President Obama would face Mitt Romney in November and that hasn't changed. You know, campaign reporters have enjoyed covering this as a horse race, making it seem more exciting than it actually is. And that was especially true in the Deep South states which voted recently, where Rick Santorum, as expected, did well.

Mitt Romney does not do well in the Deep South. But if you look out overall, Mitt Romney has won all of the important battleground states. He's leading, as Mary Kate just noted, in Wisconsin. And, you know, Rick Santorum may not even be able to hold onto his home state of Pennsylvania. And so, increasingly, there is going to be pressure from the Republican establishment on Rick Santorum to drop out.

LYDEN: Well, let's talk about what this long, drawn-out contest means, though, Cynthia. You're talking about the others not being serious. But we have seen some interesting things emerge when it comes to the Republican Party. And I'd like you both to take a look at that. Here's what Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday on CBS's "Face The Nation." We're going to play a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is not your father's Republican Party. This is a different party than I'm used to. I've been around for a while, both in the House and the Senate. It's a different party. And my guess is the electorate is - the Republican electorate is different than it's been the last 10, 12 years. And so, you know, that's the change that I'm most fascinated with watching is how much has it changed? How far right has it gone?

LYDEN: Mary Kate, let's ask you about that. Of course, the vice president is a Democrat. So, as I presume...

CARY: Sure.

LYDEN: ...the columnist E.J. Dionne who also takes this up in today's Washington Post says this party wouldn't have room for Ronald Reagan who raised taxes a few times or your former boss, George Herbert Walker Bush.

CARY: Right. Yeah. Recently Jeb Bush came out and said that he used to consider himself a conservative, and he doesn't really know what he is anymore. And I think there's a number of us who are sort of Bush 41 Republicans watching this primary race and we didn't really think the Etch A Sketch line was that big a gaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: We thought there was a lot of stuff that got said in the primaries that would be nice to move away from, and especially when it comes to women and young people and Hispanics, various minorities.

There are plenty of room for growth in the fall here to widen the tent a little more than it has been and get back to our free markets and free enterprise, free ideas sort of Republicanism.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

We're talking politics. And I'm joined by two of our regulars, Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and Cynthia Tucker, professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. What do you think about that, Cynthia? Do you think that the Republican Party's going to have to make things more towards the center come the fall?

TUCKER: Well, it's going to be difficult for Mitt Romney to do that given some of the positions that he's taken in the primaries. And that's the reason I think that the Etch A Sketch moment was so widely replayed, because it played into a narrative that is already taken hold about Mitt Romney that he really doesn't have any principles, any genuine political positions, but he's willing to say anything that's necessary.

Mitt Romney governed Massachusetts as a moderate. That is one of the reasons that more conservative Republicans haven't liked him very much, have been anywhere from skeptical of him to hostile toward him. In order to try to court them - in a Republican party, by the way, that is significantly more conservative than it was even four years ago.

I am not sure that John McCain would get the nomination of the current Republican Party. So, in order to court these extremely conservative Republicans, Mitt Romney has said some things that he's going to have a very hard time moving away from. He said he's want to - want to end Planned Parenthood. He has agreed with those who would give any employer any reason to end coverage for contraceptives in their employee insurance policies. He has been highly critical of and harsh toward illegal immigrants. All of those will be difficult for him.

LYDEN: I just want to stop you for a moment, because that goes into what the Pew Research Center has come out with, very interesting numbers on the gender gap in the electorate. And in a hypothetical match-up between Mitt Romney and President Obama, the president leads by 20 points amongst women. USA Today has a poll about the president's strength with women in 12 key swing states. Why do you think women favor President Obama so heavily, Mary Kate? Cynthia just mentioned a number of the issues where the Republicans had trouble.

CARY: Yeah. Issues count. There's also sort of the optics lately. All of these numbers are coming out in its time period where we haven't had a debate for a long time. You don't have eight or 10 guys up on the stage - and women - beating up on the president where he can't answer. It's been a long time since we've had that kind of gang-up on the president. And I think that the issues that are coming to the forefront now, because of the social issues and some of the states where immigration's an issue, that's what's getting through to the electorate.

The best thing the Republican Party can do in the long run to fix the gender gap is get more female candidates up for office. But that's not going to get fixed by the Wisconsin primary tomorrow. I think that the best thing we can do is get the women, the wives out on the stump, which both candidates have done this week.

And I think that the message for women should be, from the Republican Party - if I was king of the world, I would say: We want a government that helps our most vulnerable, but doesn't cripple the next generation financially and does not take away their freedoms. That message, I think, would sell with women far and wide, and that's exactly what people think Obama does not want to do.

LYDEN: Spoken like a former speechwriter.

CARY: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Mary Kate Cary is, in fact, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and she's currently a blogger and columnist for US News and World Report. She joined us here from our D.C. studio. And Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. She's now a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, and she joined us from member station WUGA in Athens.

Thank you both.

CARY: Great to be here.

TUCKER: It was good to be here, Jacki.

LYDEN: Thank you.

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