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Video: Axelrod on 2012; McCain and Thompson debate GOP primary

  1. Transcript of: Axelrod on 2012; McCain and Thompson debate GOP primary

    MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, battleground four. Is Romney poised for rebound? Romney and Gingrich are dueling for victory in the Sunshine State , offering a final pitch to voters.

    FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): I think as you look at the speaker's record over time , it's been highly erratic.

    FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): If you've been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away , you get desperate. And when you get desperate, you say almost anything.

    MR. GREGORY: It's a week where the debate, yet again, loomed large.

    FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: Have you checked your own investments ? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac .

    MR. GREGORY: This morning we'll debut new Florida poll numbers . Then Romney vs. Gingrich , a debate between both sides. For Romney , Arizona Senator John McCain , who has campaigned aggressively for him in Florida ; and for Gingrich , former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson . Plus, the president makes his pitch for re- election with a pointed State of the Union address .

    PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense .

    MR. GREGORY: With us, the president's top campaign strategist, David Axelrod . Finally, our political roundtable breaks down the fight for Florida and talks about where the race goes from here. Host of MSNBC 's " Morning Joe ," Joe Scarborough will be here; presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin ; and chief White House correspondent, as well as our political director, Chuck Todd .

    Announcer: From NBC News in Washington , MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory .

    MR. GREGORY: And good morning. The final 48 hours before Republican voters go to the polls in Florida and this is how the race now stands in the Sunshine State . Mitt Romney going away a 15 point lead over Gingrich at this point. It's our new NBC News / Marist poll. We're going to go through the final arguments with Senator John McCain for the Romney campaign and former Senator Fred Thompson for the Gingrich campaign in just a moment. But first, let's go inside those numbers this week with our political director Chuck Todd . Chuck :

    MR. CHUCK TODD: Well, good morning, David . Look , this lead for Mitt Romney is across the board. We asked folks, what's the most important quality in making your decision? As you can see here, electability, can beat Obama , 41 percent. And among those voters, Mitt Romney has even a larger lead over Newt Gingrich . But actually, Mitt Romney leads on all of these categories. Position on issues, shares your values, experience to govern. And in fact, experience to govern, can beat Obama , more than a majority and that's where Mitt Romney does best. Now this issue, of course , of electability showed up in our NBC News Wall Street Journal poll. Mitt Romney performs best of the three candidates. But look at this, Rick Santorum actually does better against President Obama than Newt Gingrich and we saw the same thing in our Florida numbers . Same thing, Santorum better than Gingrich . But this long campaign is taking a toll on the Republican Party 's brand. Look at this, all three Republican candidates have a net negative-positive-negative approval rating here on their personal numbers . And that, David , is an issue they're going to have to deal with in the general and this is why Mitt Romney needs to wrap this up sooner rather than later.

    MR. GREGORY: Chuck , thank you very much . We're going to see you, of course , in a few minutes. Joining me now for a special debate, two former Republican presidential candidates themselves, the party's 2008 nominee Senator John McCain , who is now backing Mitt Romney ; and for Gingrich , former Republican Senator of Tennessee Fred Thompson . Welcome to both of you.

    FMR. SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R-TN): Good to be here.

    MR. GREGORY: I do want to make a quick note to our viewers. We had an interview scheduled this morning with candidate Rick Santorum , but we got word late last night that his young daughter, Bella , who has ongoing health issues, has been hospitalized in Philadelphia . Certainly our thoughts and prayers are with Senator Santorum and his family this morning. Now we'll turn to politics and the all-important race in Florida . Good to have you both here. Senator McCain , you know, it was Florida in 2008 where you effectively shut the door and got the nomination. What does Florida mean now?

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): I think it means perhaps even more than it did in 2008 because you've got split between New Hampshire and South Carolina , as you know. So it's a, it's, it's a vital race here and I'm glad to see that Mitt 's doing so well.

    MR. GREGORY: For your candidate, Newt Gingrich , he's got to be looking at these Florida numbers after a win in South Carolina saying this could put a lot of pressure on him and make Romney the front-runner again should he win.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, first of all, I know we both want to express our, our concern as far as Rick is concerned, his family. Rick 's been a valiant warrior and that family's to be greatly commended for the way they've handled the illness of their small child. And we, we hope for the best. Yeah. Thanks for starting this show off with those poll numbers . Really, really, really perked my day up. But no, it, it looks like -- the other thing, if these poll numbers play out, of course , Romney's going to have a victory in Florida and that'll mean what, 10 percent of the delegates will have been, will have been counted. I think it's, I think you're going to look at a longer race. I think, you know, we'll, we'll see the, the, the two wins and the comparisons and the majority. You know, in South Carolina , Newt won practically every, every group there except those with higher incomes and those with advanced degrees and we'll, we'll, we'll see. If it's a victory for Mitt , we'll, we'll break it down and see what it means. But it's, it's probably about 10 percent of the delegates, I would think, only.

    MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about some of the dynamics here. You have the establishment of the Republican Party saying Newt Gingrich cannot be the nominee. We were talking before we came on about Bob Dole , former Senator Bob Dole , and he issued a pretty tough statement this week. We'll put a portion of it on the screen. He said this, "I haven't been critical of Gingrich , but now it's time to take a stand before it's too late. If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway." Senator Thompson , you know Gingrich well, served with him.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: This is the view, that if he is the nominee, it helps President Obama .

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Well, of course I served with him, so I'm one of those people that have endorsed him and there's several others who have served with him, too. But, you know, there's some old score settling going on. Newt , Newt had some run-ins with some, with some people of his own party. But, you know, a lot of them, I'm not talking about Bob Dole who I love, but, but, but a lot of them were holding Newt 's coat back when he conceived of a way for the Republicans to take over and have a first Republican House Speaker in 50 years. When they balanced the budget, when he held Bill Clinton 's feet to the fire, and finally got welfare reform passed and we were winning elections. And his personality and his leadership skills and all that didn't seem to be a big problem back then, but when those poll numbers dropped off and we started losing some elections we should've won and so forth, everything changed. And now, you know, Mitt 's been a front- runner for a long time and people are piling on the bandwagon and so we...

    MR. GREGORY: But is this just score settling, Senator McCain ? Or is this a real fear as Governor Christie said on this program last week, that he's an embarrassment to the Republican Party ?

    SEN. McCAIN: Well, I, I would not say that, but I would say that we've had some rather unpleasant experiences with Newt Gingrich . And one of them was the government shutdown in 1995 . And Bob Dole is the one that finally called a halt to it because it was killing it. I mean, it just -- the American people rejected the idea of us shutting down the government . My problems with Newt have been over earmark spending, billions and billions and billions. They- -when Newt Gingrich became speaker, they turned earmarks into an art form and it -- as Tom Coburn says, it is the gateway to corruption. And we had members, former members of Congress in jail. Duke Cunningham , Bob Ney , Abramoff , all of this is because of the corruption that is bred by this outrageous, obscene corruption -- earmark process. They went in his first year from $7.8 billion in earmarks to two later to $14.5 billion in earmarks. I read up on the floor of the Senate , 52 pages of earmarks. And so that kind of thing, they had this K Street project where there was this incestuous relationship to the lobbyists on K Street . It was not the principles of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan . And finally, he criticized, on March 21st , 1986 , on the floor of the Senate , he said that Ronald Reagan was a failure in the war -- in the struggle against the Soviet Union . And so -- but -- and I want to emphasize, the reason why Mitt 's got the electability is because of his experiences as governor, as a businessperson, saved the Olympics in Salt Lake City , and I think people are looking at that as a reason for his electability.

    MR. GREGORY: But if you go to the negatives for Gingrich , you've gone up against now President Obama head to head.

    SEN. McCAIN: Yes.

    MR. GREGORY: Can Newt Gingrich beat President Obama ?

    SEN. McCAIN: I think any of our candidates can, but you just showed the numbers up there. We've got to stop the debates . Enough with the debates because they are driving up our candidates, all of them, unfavorabilities. We've had enough of that. They've turned into mud wrestling instead of exposition of the candidates' views on the issues. We've had enough of that and it's time to recognize who the real adversary is and that's not each other.

    MR. GREGORY: What about...

    SEN. McCAIN: It's the president.

    MR. GREGORY: What about the negative advertising ? I mean, this is the, the growth of the super PAC in this race? Do you, do you condemn those as well on all sides?

    SEN. McCAIN: I condemn them on all sides and I condemn the United States Supreme Court for their naivety in the Citizens Vs . United , a decision which is an outrage. Now we have a casino owner and his wife, $10 million ...

    MR. GREGORY: Sheldon Adelson .

    SEN. McCAIN: ...into the race. He makes a lot of his money out of Macao . We have, we have -- on both sides we have these incredible amounts of money and I guarantee you there will be a scandal, there is too much money washing around politics, and it's making the parties irrelevant, by the way.

    MR. GREGORY: A scandal where? You think a scandal -- the Gingrich campaign , where the money 's coming from?

    SEN. McCAIN: Oh, no, no. No. No, no. Not -- it's going to be a scandal that has to do with foreign money , it has -- a scandal to do with the way it was raised. It -- I guarantee you you cannot have this much money washing around without...

    MR. GREGORY: Well, Senator Thompson , it...

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Do we, do we really want to talk about money ? I understand Sheldon Adelson asked Mitt Romney for a loan, is that right? I mean, I mean come on.

    SEN. McCAIN: To get a reverse mortgage.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Citizens United -- yeah -- Citizens United is not responsible for all this. It didn't stop George Soros and others, you know, from throwing millions and millions of dollars in, and of course not everybody...

    MR. GREGORY: Is it hurting the nominee, though, I mentioned, whoever the nominee's going to be?

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: ...not everybody, not everybody can be self-funded. I, I tell you what's hurting the nominee. The -- by the way, John Hitt owned the basic philosophical difference that divides Newt from some of his colleagues. Back when Newt was trying to hold Bill Clinton 's feet to the fire and Clinton shut down the government , Republicans got credit for it, Newt got a lot of criticism. A lot of people said if we'd held out a little bit longer , Clinton would have caved and, and we would have won the day. Bob Dole went to the floor of the Senate , said "enough is enough" and he thought Republicans were getting hurt and we ought to accommodate Clinton , and that's what we did. So that's the philosophical difference, that's a legitimate difference. But all this other overkill and unseemliness and bringing members of Congress and putting them in Gingrich rallies, you know, and causing disruptions and, and things like that is, is way overboard. What's hurting us and what's going to be hurting our nominee -- let's just say that Romney is the nominee -- his, his modus operandi basically is to play Mr. Nice Guy until somebody gets close to him and then he unleashes his attack machine and that's what happened in Iowa , that's what's happening in Florida , spending millions of dollars -- I think they spent $16 million in attack ads -- or in television ads alone in Florida .

    MR. GREGORY: But this isn't beanbag, as Senator McCain once said, I mean this is modern politics.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: But they -- yeah, well, it's not, it's not, it's not. It, it, it is beanbag, you know, when the shoe's on the other foot and, and Gingrich does something that they don't like. But he outspent, he outspent -- and this goes to electability, too, he outspent Gingrich two-to-one in South Carolina , that wasn't enough. He's outspending Gingrich now five-to-one with the -- in Florida -- with a lead ad which is totally false according to The Wall Street Journal yesterday saying that he was forced out of Congress in disgrace. Says don't believe Mitt Romney when he tries to peddle this stuff -- Wall Street Journal yesterday. And, and, and that's his key to victory. Now there's a front-page story in the Wall -- in The New York Times today where Romney's staff patting themselves on the back talking about how mean and down they are, how they've got Matt Drudge in their back pocket and how Romney is in on all of it. And, you know, how they're sending surrogates to these opposition rallies and so forth.

    MR. GREGORY: All right, it's been, it's been a negative race.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Is this the way, is this the way to win a general election ?

    MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you -- there is a fight going on right now, Senator McCain , within the Republican Party . I mean, really haven't seen this before. You have the rise of the tea party , you have the establishment making an argument , and your former running mate, Sarah Palin , posted something on Facebook .

    SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

    MR. GREGORY: I want to look at a portion of it. It was very interesting. She writes, "I have great concern about the GOP establishment trying to anoint a candidate without the blessing of the grass roots and all the needed energy and resources we as common sense constitutional conservatives could bring to the general election in order to defeat President Obama ." You do have a split in the party. Does that guarantee that Gingrich could stay in, that this could go on quite a while?

    SEN. McCAIN: I think it could go, go on quite a while, which would not be to our benefit. And by the way, if we'd have hung on in 1995 , we could have, we could have had -- the Libertarian Party could have, could have won the next election . I mean, to say we should have hung on a little bit longer is -- I guess is remarkable. But the point is that -- I -- listen, by the way, I love Sarah and I agree with her. She may have had different experiences with Newt than I did, for example, in 2007 when President Bush showed great courage and started the surge, which is what saved us in Iraq at least militarily, Newt went to the floor and said it was irrelevant and inadequate. He, he attacked Ronald Reagan back in 1986 when we were getting enough attacks from the left. But again, I want to report, I think that Mitt Romney knows how to work with Democrats , that's the case in Massachusetts . He knows the private sector . And by the way, attacking people who make money in the private sector is -- I guess you're going to have Mr. Axelrod on later on, I think he'll be appreciative of that. But the point is that he has the experience and the knowledge and the background. And I 've gotten to know Mitt and I've gotten to know his wife and my wife, Cindy , has, and we -- I think he's displaying now the kind of, of, of, of delivery and persuasive argument that's going to carry him through.

    MR. GREGORY: You did in 2008 attack him as a flip-flopper...

    SEN. McCAIN: Sure.

    MR. GREGORY: ...as somebody who was on different sides of issues and for his conduct running Bain Capital , so you don't think these are illegitimate issues for Newt Gingrich to be raising now, do you?

    SEN. McCAIN: I think that Newt can raise whatever issue he wants. And I know that as we just said, politics is not beanbag. I remember the fights between Ronald Reagan and Bush , who later chose him as vice president. Mitt Romney was on the very short list of my consideration to be a running mate. These things, when they're over, you've got to get together and you got to be sure of what the objective is, and that's victory in the general election .

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: I thought -- I...

    SEN. McCAIN: And I think we can do that, Fred .

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think -- well, well, we, we better. But I thought we were past the Ronald Reagan stuff. Ronald Reagan 's son has endorsed Newt , Nancy Reagan said we're handing off the mantel to -- from, from Reagan to Newt . And even Mitt wouldn't back up, you know, the ads and stuff that they've put out on the Ronald Reagan stuff. So that -- let's put that aside for a minute. Here's, here's the underlying, here's the underlying issue; our country 's in deep trouble, this is where I'm coming from, Our country is, is possibly on the brink. We're going to have to make some basic decisions. Our economy has stultified, it's stopped, it's -- for all practical purposes . I think the Fed indicated they expect that to happen in the, in the foreseeable future with the interest rate statement that they made the other day. We -- we're, we're in serious trouble. And we've got a president, you know, who is out there now proceeding to, to divide the American people and mislead the American people , you know, say, "Well, good news, we import more oil -- less oil than we did before." Well, it's because of the Obama recession that we're importing less oil. That's like congratulating a sick person for losing weight. And we're going to have to have somebody who can step up there, who is courageous, who is tough, who can challenge Obama not only on his policies but on the philosophical underpinnings of that policy. We don't need a bean counter, we don't need a data processor, you know, even someone who's been a very successful one. We need someone who is courageous and will shake things up in Washington . If you look at Mitt 's policies, his capital gains policy, for example, tracks Barack Obama 's. We still don't know what his problem with Obamacare is. We've been through 18 debates and we yet -- we're yet to know -- except it was on a federal level instead of the state level -- what his problem with Obamacare is.

    MR. GREGORY: Let me -- before we go, we're just about out of time, I do want to ask about one Arizona issue, Senator , as you remember, this week got a lot of attention.

    SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: This picture of the governor of Arizona in a heated discussion with President Obama . You said this week it's very well known that Obama has a prickly personality.

    SEN. McCAIN: Unlike me.

    MR. GREGORY: Are you concerned about that incident?

    SEN. McCAIN: I -- I'm concerned about whenever there's a situation that evolves like that. It doesn't help the president, doesn't help our governor. But she does have a very legitimate point. He has been to Arizona on many occasions. He's never been to the U.S. Arizona border where fast and furious took place, where we had a border patrol agent killed, where we got -- drugs are flowing into Arizona , into Phoenix and around the country ; 40,000 people have been killed on the other side of the border, and the president won't even go down and have a look? That's one of the things that -- main subject of her letter. So let's invite the president down on this whole immigration issue. But securing the border -- look, they've got -- the cartels have people sitting on mountaintops in Arizona guiding the drug runners up to Phoenix , where it's distributed all over the country . It's a big issue with our governor and it should be.

    MR. GREGORY: As you know, you're making history this morning, your 63rd appearance, tying Senator Dole for most appearances on MEET THE PRESS .

    MR. GREGORY: Old Bob Dole .

    MR. GREGORY: And you realize that you'll have to have one more and then you get the Universal Studios tour package. That's, that's what you'll get for 64.

    FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: I think you're ready for a....

    SEN. McCAIN: And I -- thanks for having me on with my old pal.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Thank you both very much. We'll be watching this campaign . Coming up, as Republicans continue to battle in the Sunshine State , President Obama unveiled his own campaign pitch this week. Is he in a better position for re- election than many first thought ? We'll take a look inside the president's 2012 playbook with his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod . Plus, Decision 2012 . Just two days now before the Florida Republican primary . Our political roundtable is here to weigh in on the state of the race. MSNBC 's Joe Scarborough , historian Doris Kearns Goodwin , and NBC 's own Chuck Todd .

    MR. GREGORY: Coming next, we'll take a look at the president's re- election playbook with his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod . Plus, our roundtable will take an in-depth look at the state of the race. Joining me Chuck Todd , Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joe Scarborough , up next after this brief commercial break .

    MR. GREGORY: Joining me now is senior adviser to President Obama 's re- election campaign , David Axelrod . Always good to have you. Welcome back.

    MR. DAVID AXELROD: Great to be back. Hey, before we start, let me also add my prayers and thoughts for Senator Santorum and his child. I've, I've gone through problems with a child...

    MR. GREGORY: Sure.

    MR. AXELROD: ...and, and my heart goes out to him and his family.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah, as, as does ours, and does promise to be back on the campaign trail, so we'll be watching that. Let's talk about the State of the Union address that the president gave this week. It was, in many ways, a campaign blueprint for how he intends to run against Republicans , whoever the nominee is this fall. And one of the criticisms of it has been how relatively small it was in terms of on, on big problems that the country faces. David Brooks , a regular on this program, as you know, wrote this in his column on Friday, and I'll have you react to it.

    MR. AXELROD: Mm-hmm.

    MR. GREGORY: "This election is about averting national decline. The president is making a mistake," Brooks writes, "in ceding the size advantage to the Republicans . The Republicans at least speak with epic alarm about the nation's problems. They're unified behind big tax and welfare state reforms that would purge Washington and shake things up. The president is making a mistake in

    running a Sunset Boulevard campaign: I am big; it's my presidency that got small." Has he trimmed his sails a bit from being a transform -- a transformative leader?

    MR. AXELROD: No, I, I, look, I love David . He's a great friend of mine, one of the great public thinkers in America . But the truth is the Republicans aren't offering ideas to, to deal with our economic challenges. They want to go back to the same ideas that were in place in the last decade. And as far as the president goes, David may not think it's a big idea to transform our education system and, and increase access to higher education and turn our community college system into a skills training center so people can get jobs. He may not think getting control of our energy future is a big idea . He may not think reviving American manufacturing is a big idea , but most Americans would disagree with him who are living out there in the real world .

    MR. GREGORY: But if you look at how dire the fiscal situation is in the country , we just came off a debt debacle this past summer. Alan Simpson responding to the State of the Union said, where's the guts? Where's the hard stuff ? Where's beef? Where are the hard choices that Americans are going to have to make? What are Americans have -- going to have to do with less of if this president gets re- election ?

    MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think Americans are struggling in this economy right now, and we're going to have to have shared sacrifice. The president's already authorized $2 trillion in savings and cuts in the budget, and he is willing to do more. The big debate, David , is how do we do it in a balanced way. Are we going to pursue the, the path of, of a Mitt Romney and others in the Republican Party who basically say we, we're going to do this without any new revenues so that instead of asking millionaires to pay a little bit more , we are going to cut education by 25 percent, cut research and development by 25 percent, cut our investments in, in energy and other areas that we need to grow this, an economy in a way in which the middle class and opportunity is growing and not shrinking.

    MR. GREGORY: But we're not dealing with the big drivers of the debt, as you know. The debt commission that the president convened is not advice that he acted on. And the reality is that the fiscal situation is dire. If we're not dealing with entitlements -- what, you talk about shared sacrifice, would the resident...

    MR. AXELROD: Listen, the...

    MR. GREGORY: Wait a second. He -- there was a stimulus plan. There was a new healthcare entitlement, but there was nothing dealing with the big drivers of the day.

    MR. AXELROD: The president made clear in that speech, as he did to Speaker Gingrich last summer, that he is willing to do a grand bargain, a, a large deal to deal with our deficits. But understand, Senator Simpson put forward a proposal. He was impaneled by the president. He and Mr. Bowles put, put forward a proposal that would have called for significant new revenues primarily by asking more of upper income Americans . And the Republican Party said, no, we will not do that. And so we have to have a balanced way forward . And when the Republican Party is willing to step forward , the Republicans in Congress , and say, "yes, let's do this together in a balanced way, let's protect the key investments we need to grow and, yes, cut and ask a little more from people who can afford it and are willing, and willing to do it," I think.

    MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the Republican race. It seemed that Mitt Romney was very much on the president's mind when he gave his State of the Union address , when he talked about an argument he's clearly going to take to the general election , which is economic fairness or requiring the rich to pay more in taxes. This is a portion of what the president said.

    PRES. OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules .

    MR. GREGORY: It was revealed, of course , in tax returns this week that Governor Romney paid an effective tax rate of under 15 percent or about 15 percent over the last couple of years. But he was asked about his wealth. He was asked about his taxes during the debates and this is what he said.

    FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: I have earned the money that I have. I didn't inherit it. I take risk, I make investment. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America .

    MR. GREGORY: So what did Governor Romney do that was unfair? Did he not play by the rules ?

    MR. AXELROD: Well, here's...

    MR. GREGORY: Did he not use the free enterprise system in the correct way?

    MR. AXELROD: Here's the question -- no, he played -- he absolutely -- I'm not saying he didn't play by the rules . The rules allow you to have Swiss bank accounts , the rules allow you to put your money in the Cayman Islands and to set up businesses in Bermuda and so on. The rules allow all of that. The question is, are the rules right? He would continue those rules . They are not right. It's not right that the -- that someone like Governor Romney can make $20, $22 million and pay an effective tax rate lower than the average middle class person in this country . Not at a time, David , when we have all these needs. And this goes back to our previous discussion. If we're going to solve this deficit then everybody's going to have to give a little. And that includes people at the top. His view is that somehow our economy profits because he has these special benefits that other people of more modest means don't have. And we just disagree.

    MR. GREGORY: Why doesn't that appear to be a more poll-tested position , which is if you really want shared sacrifice, then the middle class should pay taxes, too. I mean, roll back the Bush tax cuts for everybody rather than looking at the, you know, just having the rich pay more, which you look at polling and see that you have some political for. If it's shared sacrifice, why not say to everybody, everybody's going to have to do with less in terms of a social safety net , in terms of taxes and all the rest.

    MR. AXELROD: Listen, there is no -- there is -- there is -- there is no doubt that there's been -- that there have been sacrifices in those $2 trillion of cuts and savings that we've already outlined. There will be more sacrifices necessary. We will have to address issues involving the -- those programs. But it -- the middle class is -- has seen their income shrink over the last decade, not grow. And people like Governor Romney have done spectacularly well. So to say let's put the burden on the middle class seems to be counterintuitive here.

    MR. GREGORY: What has Governor Romney done when he was head of Bain , his business practices, his experience in the free market, that gives the president real concerns that he's going to take to the American people ?

    MR. AXELROD: I think the concern should be on the part of the American people because look, he's, he's, he's done -- he has a great track record of creating wealth for himself and his partners and he's done it by closing a thousand plants and stores and offices around the country . He's done it by outsourcing jobs. He's done it by profiting -- by loading companies down with debt and them putting them into bankruptcy, on which he and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars . I'm -- the point is, is that the vision of how we build a stronger economy ?

    MR. GREGORY: There were jobs gained.

    MR. AXELROD: Most Americans ...

    MR. GREGORY: There were jobs gained, as well, given their investments .

    MR. AXELROD: Well...

    MR. GREGORY: They're putting capital on the line.

    MR. AXELROD: ...that number's been shifting around quite a bit, as you know. Governor Romney 's offered several different numbers there. But the point is, his philosophy suggests that his emphasis is on creating profit for himself and his, and his partners and his investors, not creating jobs. Look, the truth is, David , he made this same argument when he ran for governor of Massachusetts and what happened when he became governor of Massachusetts ? They fell to 47th in the nation in job creation . You know, he's -- and now he's running the same, the same game again and I think the American people rightly are going to start looking at...

    MR. GREGORY: Well, you don't really want to -- the president doesn't want to run on a record of jobs loss, does he? Because he's going to lose that bet, isn't he, against Governor Romney ?

    MR. AXELROD: Well, let me just say, Governor Romney in the, in, in his last campaign for president, 2007 and 2008 , praised the last administration for their economic policies and for shoring up the economy at a time when we were losing millions of jobs heading into, into our administration, four, four million jobs in the last six months. That's his idea of strong economic policy . So I think he's going to have a hard time making that argument to the American people .

    MR. GREGORY: But you -- a lot of people hear you and think that you are somehow, you know, casting dispersions on venture capital . How is that different than the federal government under this president investing in clean energy companies like Solyndra that failed, costing the taxpayers a great deal of money and yet the president said in the State of the Union , you know, we're going to double down. We're not going to turn our back on clean energy . What's the difference in those kind of moves? It's kind of the government acting as venture capitalists?

    MR. AXELROD: First of all, leveraged buyouts of the sort that Governor Romney profited off of are quite different, where you buy a company, load it down with debt, strip it down, let it go bankrupt and then make money off of fees on the bankruptcy. That's quite different. That's a different approach.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, it is capitalism making countries stronger, a lot of people would argue.

    MR. AXELROD: Yes, you -- yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes. And by the way, you raise that point, I don't hear Governor Romney saying, yeah, I applaud the president for doing things that try and encourage clean energy in this country , which we area doing. We're going to double renewable energy use in this country over the course of four years. On jobs, 22 straight months of private sector job growth. Quite a contrast to the six months before we took office when Governor Romney said the policies were in place that we're shoring up the economy .

    MR. GREGORY: What do you think's going to happen in this race? I know you don't want to handicap this, I've heard you say that before. You're obviously gearing up for Governor Romney . You've also been through a primary fight that goes on a while. Do you think this one goes on, particularly because of this split between the establishment and the tea party that I was talking about a few minutes ago?

    MR. AXELROD: Well, I think it could. I've always thought that Governor Romney was a weak front-runner. I still think he's a weak front-runner. He's overpowered Gingrich in Florida with, you know, five-to-one spending advantage and a very negative campaign . But the nature of the process is you have to accumulate the delegates necessary to win. And I , I believe this will go on for a while. The thing that's unusual, though, is, you know, when we had a long primary process with Senator Clinton and it strengthened us. We didn't see our numbers erode the way Governor Romney 's numbers have eroded. Independent voters are fleeing Governor Romney now and his numbers are falling. He's underwater nationally. This process is not helping him because he's so intent on pandering to those forces on, on the right of his party to try and win this nomination and he's been so mercurial in his positions. I always say, you know, he has his own version of states ' rights. He thinks he has the right to change his position in every state he campaigns in. In Iowa , he was very -- he ran to the right of Gingrich on immigration. In Florida , he's tried to run in a different direction. And on every single issue, including, by the way, whether he would release his tax returns , he's been all over the lot.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. AXELROD: And it's caused people to doubt his core as, as, as one of my colleagues said here some months ago. So think this has not been a helpful process for him.

    MR. GREGORY: You look at what you're up against, what President Obama 's up against, it was captured in our -- not ours, it was Washington Post ABC News poll recently. Are you better off or worse off financially with Obama as president? Thirty percent saying worse off, 54 percent saying about the same. This is obviously going to be a fight about the economy . One of the things I, I have a question about as I watch this president campaign and as I read various criticism of him and his style, does he like politics?

    MR. AXELROD: I think he likes doing things that make our country stronger, that make communities stronger. That's why he got into public life . I think he loves being with people. He's- -he, he enjoys that, you can see that when he's out and, and campaigning. Does he like, does he like the kind of sordid stuff that we've seen on display in Florida in the last week? Probably not. I think any reasonable person would not. But, but I think he relishes the opportunity to help devote, to devote himself to help making this a stronger country .

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. AXELROD: And he believes very deeply that if we don't have an economic policy that has at its heart the idea that a growing middle class is the key to a strong economy , then we're going to have a very dim future. On the other hand , we have an opportunity to build a much brighter future here. So he's very motivated.

    MR. GREGORY: You, you say to someone who maybe voted for Obama in 2008 and is on the fence now, why he deserves this second term.

    MR. AXELROD: Mm-hmm.

    MR. GREGORY: Not quite the bumper sticker, maybe a little bit longer answer, what is it?

    MR. AXELROD: I think I would say that he's lead the country through a very difficult time. We have a long way to go . We're in a much different place than we were when he got there and he has a vision of how to build a country , as I said, an economy in which hard work pays off, responsibility's rewarded, everybody plays by the same rules and everybody gets a fair shake. And he believes that is -- that is rooted in our firmest American values and our most important American values and it is the key to our, to our future.

    MR. GREGORY: Congratulations on your Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago .

    MR. AXELROD: Thank you. Appreciate that.

    MR. GREGORY:

    MR. AXELROD: Hope to have you out there.

    MR. GREGORY: Absolutely. David Axelrod , thank you very much .

    MR. AXELROD: Good to be with you .

    MR. GREGORY: And coming up, two days before the Republican primary in Florida , in our new NBC poll in the Sunshine State shows Mitt Romney in the driver's seat. Can Gingrich close the gap? And what about the road forward? Who does the political calendar favor in these battles ahead? Our roundtable's coming up. MSNBC 's Joe Scarborough is here, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and NBC 's Chuck Todd . Right after the break.

    MR. GREGORY: And we're back with our political roundtable. Joining me, chief White House correspondent, our political director for NBC News , Chuck Todd ; presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin ; and host of MSNBC 's " Morning Joe ," Florida 's own Joe Scarborough . Welcome to you all. Well, here it is again, we'll put up our latest poll numbers to give you a sense of where the race is, 42 percent to 27 percent, Joe Scarborough . Romney's in a very commanding position . How has he done it? How has he put himself in a position to really make Florida the rebound state for him?

    MR. JOE SCARBOROUGH: You don't, you don't have to ask me, just ask his advisers who are spilling their guts on the front page of The New York Times telling the world that it wasn't the candidate that turned things around, it was their own brilliance. I, I find it to be one of the most fascinating articles that in the middle of the campaign you would have, have people doing it. But their goal was -- two goals, one, to make Newt angry, and two, to make Mitt look tough, and that's worked well. But let's not overstate it. A week ago we were all saying Florida 's a big state .

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Chuck and I know this. You win by having lots of money and running lots of 30-second ads and having the wind at your back. I mean, these advisers can take all the credit they want. At the end things were just -- this -- I mean this -- Florida -- Florida 's a Romney state .

    MR. GREGORY: And look at the money . We put it up on the screen. You just -- it's really quite

    striking: $15.7 million between the campaign and the super PAC , dwarfing Gingrich . And this was

    simple strategy: We're not playing the air of inevitability here, we got to crush Gingrich .

    MR. TODD: No, it -- and this is the story , it's the money . I mean, Joe's right, you're -- it is surprising to see all of these strategists take credit in The New York Times without giving their candidate any credit, but that's going to be an interesting little internal spat...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. TODD: ...probably down the road. But money was the answer here. They just carpet-bombed Gingrich . And, you know, it was interesting, in our poll that made Gingrich so unelectable to some conservatives that if you factor -- if you get rid of the Santorum vote and, and factor in the second choices, Romney's lead actually grows...

    MR. GREGORY: Really.

    MR. TODD: ...but a point. So this idea that somehow conservatives are splitting the vote, not anymore, they really have made Newt Gingrich not just unelectable, unacceptable.

    MR. GREGORY: But, Doris , they did it in part -- not -- debate performances, which I'll talk about in just a second, but also getting the establishment all together to say, "We must stop Gingrich , he cannot be the nominee, he can't win."

    MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I thought it was an extraordinary thing that Senator Dole said...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MS. GOODWIN: ...where he said, "This is our last stand." Otherwise there's going to -- I mean that's the -- Custer's last stand is coming. Unless we stop him in Florida , we're going to lose the election by a landslide. And the only help, help for Gingrich in that is then he has to try and mobilize the tea party people who feel that the establishment has closed in on him, and that's where Herman Cain comes in...

    MR. GREGORY: Sure.

    MS. GOODWIN: ...and Sarah Palin , etc., etc.

    MR. GREGORY: But look at the debates as well because we saw a different Romney . There's only been 300, 400 debates, and here you really saw Romney -- I mean this was the exchange over blind trusts and investments . Watch.

    FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: First of all, my investments are not made by me, my investments for the last 10 years have been into blind trusts managed by a trustee. But have you checked your own investments ? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac .

    FMR. REP. GINGRICH: All right.

    MR. GREGORY: I mean, Joe , it was amazing. It was like, "I'm not the only one who's stolen Halloween candy from four year olds"...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Exactly.

    MR. GREGORY: ..."you've done it, too."

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: And, and as Romney's staff members have told us, they're so brilliant, they heard Newt talking about it that day...

    MR. TODD: Yeah.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ... Boston did some research.

    MR. TODD: Right.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: And.... But listen, let -- a week ago we were talking about the Newt surge, and immediately after Newt won, Doris is right, the Republican establishment rebelled. Just like immediately after Romney won New Hampshire and looked inevitable, the conservative establishment rebelled. This is going to be going a long time and it's ugly for the Republican brand when you have Sarah Palin coming out comparing the GOP establishment to Stalin . Last time I checked, the establishment hasn't killed 30 million people, but OK, whatever. It's getting uglier. The -- Chuck 's poll showed these guys are upside down now.

    MS. GOODWIN: And, you know...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: In the, in the, in the positive-negative ratings, this is hurting the Republican Party moving forward.

    MS. GOODWIN: And the problem is that Newt lived and died by those debates and he didn't do well in that last debate. I mean, first he complained last week that there was no, no reaction allowed from the crowd.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MS. GOODWIN: Then he said there was too much, it destroyed his rhythm. And then he says, "I want to go back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates ." If he could go back to those debates , do you know the crowd was able to really respond, they would yell out "Hit him again, hit him again!"

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MS. GOODWIN: "Harder!" like football games. What would happen to his rhythm if that happened?

    MR. GREGORY: What, what about the money issue? We'll put up on the screen what the tax returns showed for Mitt Romney and how much money he made over the last couple of years. You made a point this week in, in -- before we came on the program that wealth alone is not a problem for presidents, right?

    MS. GOODWIN: Absolutely. I think...

    MR. GREGORY: George Washington did OK.

    MS. GOODWIN: And so did JFK and so did Teddy Roosevelt and so did Franklin Roosevelt . But each one of those men had something in their lives that allowed them to connect to ordinary people . Teddy Roosevelt had gone to the West as a cowboy after his wife and mother died on the same day, he was in the Rough Riders . FDR had polio, which took him out of that privileged life and allowed him to connect to ordinary people . JFK had been in World War II . The problem for Romney is maybe he's had those experiences, but they certainly don't show when he says, "I want to make a $10,000 bet" or "Oh, I made $324,000 in speaking fees, that was small change " or "I've had a pink slip" or "I like firing people." That shows that somehow his life experience hasn't connected him empathetically. We don't care if people are wealthy, what matters is can they understand our problems and can they empathize with us?

    MR. TODD: Well, and look, and, and now he's got this one-line attack that anybody can do: Swiss bank account . Right? It's one phrase that's going to come up over and over again.

    MR. GREGORY: You heard Axelrod use it.

    MR. TODD: He used it. You've heard Newt Gingrich use it. You're going to hear this being used as shorthand to describe his wealth. And, you know, remember, last week we were hearing -- saying, you know, Mitt Romney doesn't just have a Newt Gingrich problem , he has a Mitt Romney problem . They fixed their Newt Gingrich problem for now. And, and by the way, the, the Romney people seem to realize the, the lesson they learned from the first time they thought they destroyed Gingrich was don't let up, so they're not going to let up this time, they're not going to suddenly win Florida by 15 points and say we're going to start acting like the nominee. They know this, this issue of, of the revenge of the tea party could come bite them at some point in time, and so they're going to keep their foot on Newt Gingrich 's neck.

    MR. GREGORY: Well...

    MR. TODD: But they still haven't fixed their Mitt Romney problem .

    MR. GREGORY: Well -- and I -- and I want to talk about the calendar in just a second. First, Joe Scarborough , if we talk about the rise and the fall of Newt Gingrich -- you wrote something in Politico that I thought was quite vibrant in its use of language. "For those tempted to once again predict the speedy collapse of his campaign , consider yourself forewarned. I've known this guy a long time to realize that the only three species destined to survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches, Cher and Newton Leroy Gingrich ."

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: And let me tell you something, a 20-point loss in Florida , that's not a nuclear holocaust . Newt will be back. February's a down month. That gives the strategists three, four weeks to plan. And then look at the calendar.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah, we'll put it up.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: You've got Georgia , Alabama ...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ... Mississippi , Louisiana , Tennessee , Oklahoma , Texas soon after that. If I've got to bet on Newt 's strongest states , I list all of those. It's exactly what he needs. This is not the end of Newt Gingrich , this is not even the beginning of the end of Newt Gingrich . This battle is going well into the summer, and that's really bad news for Mitt Romney ...

    MR. GREGORY: Well, I mean...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...and bad news for the Republican Party .

    MR. GREGORY: And, Chuck , you've been reporting on this all week.

    MR. TODD: Right.

    MR. GREGORY: Look at the national numbers in our own poll that shows Gingrich as a national favorite. I mean, I think to Joe's point, that if he can hold on, get to Super Tuesday ...

    MR. TODD: Right.

    MR. GREGORY: ...where the revenge of a Southern candidate could again pull sway.

    MR. TODD: And that's all he is. Let's just remember, he, when you really look deep in our poll, he had a monster lead among Southerners , the very conservative, and, and tea party . Well, the heart of all three of those is outsized in the South . So the, the way the calendar sits -- sets up in March would be, could be a month for Gingrich . But he could go, you know, February, remember, there was this dead -- February was a horrible period for Hillary Clinton . She couldn't find a place to win and she was counting on March because March had Ohio , and that's where she was going to come back. And I , I have to say, March looks like another -- February looks like a bad time for Gingrich . Where's he going to win? Those caucuses, Ron Paul 's going to do well. But Mitt -- they're also set up pretty well for Mitt Romney .

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. TODD: Then you have Arizona and Michigan . Well, Michigan 's one of Romney's home states . That's where he was born. Arizona , I can make an argument that Gingrich should do fairly well there. It's a very conservative state . But his position on immigration, I think the Romney people are going to be able to exploit it and make it a liability for him there. And so he could go sort of oh for the next six going into Super Tuesday , and that's a problem .

    MR. GREGORY: Meantime, Doris Kearns Goodwin , you've got the president, President Obama who got into this game big. And, you know, there can be a lot of debates , but when you're president and you can give a State of the Union address and reach 40 million people. I -- even if the numbers are down, it's still pretty commanding. Here's the cover of The New Yorker magazine and it shows President Obama watching the Super Bowl , and it's Romney and Gingrich tackling each other in what's becoming a more and more bruising contest. What kind of week did Obama have with his unveiling, if you will, of his campaign approach?

    MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think he had a terrific week in two respects. One, as you suggest, that the more coarse the language is between the Republicans , the more they lose as a brand for the party. It's the worst I've seen it in a while. It really is. I mean, it's, it's not as bad as Van Buren when the, the song was " Van Buren deserves the lowest place in Hell . Van Buren ." They haven't descended to that. Now on the other side ...

    MR. TODD: Give it...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: It was ugly.

    MR. TODD: It was ugly, yeah. Yeah. Back in the good old days .

    MS. GOODWIN: The, the State of the Union , I think, gave the tone for the campaign in a very positive way. Fairness is an issue that I think is felt in people's hearts and minds, and that was the central argument of the thing...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MS. GOODWIN: ...that somehow mobility has been hurt in this country . The idea that brought immigrants to the shore, that if you worked hard you could have a decent life and you could move up, people sense that that's been lost. And he said that that's what he's going to fight for, fairness. That the systems is rigged against ordinary people .

    MR. GREGORY: But, Joe , you talk about this all the time on " Morning Joe ." The problems we face are so big, the challenges are so monumental, our politics seem small. Is it a fair knock on the president to say, "Hey, what happened to the transformational figure who was going to -- say to the American people we're going to have to do with a lot less if we're going to get ourselves back on a better financial footing?"

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: I, I heard the speech before, and Chuck , Chuck actually said the same thing joking to David Axelrod . This was Bill Clinton 's 1996 - 1997 speech all over again, where you take all of these small items, like school uniforms. They're all poll tested. They're market driven. You put them all in a speech. There's no overarching theme, and it is a great campaign speech. It's not a great governing document. I thought David Brooks nailed it. This is sort of depressing. If you look at our politics on both sides, Republican and Democrat alike, look what they're saying and then compare that to what Simpson - Bowles did when they actually went out and took a chance on trying to save this country fiscally. That's not happening on the Republican side . It's certainly not happening out of the White House . But the president's doing exactly what he has to do to move towards re- election , and that is say, you know, say the right words and, and watch the Republicans destroy each other.

    MR. GREGORY: Chuck Todd , you know, I was thinking this week, I don't know what the most fascinating part of America is, but Newt Gingrich this week told me.

    FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, I pretty enthusiastically early in my career kept trying to figure out how to get away from the sugar subsidy, and I found out one of, one of the fascinating things about America which was that cane sugar hides behind beet sugar , and there are just too many beet sugar districts in the United States .

    MR. GREGORY: OK, I have to confess, I'm from Los Angeles , I didn't know what this meant. But, but you've helped me, a Floridian .

    MR. TODD: I, well, but look...

    MS. GOODWIN: I...

    MR. TODD: ...you know, you know, big sugar cane is what happens. There's actually a whole conspiracy that the whole embargo on Cuba actually, there are some who believe in that, that it's all about propping up the sugar industry.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Must be sugar.

    MR. TODD: Because eventually...

    MR. GREGORY: The sugar...

    MR. TODD: No, you laugh, but, right, Joe ?

    MS. GOODWIN: Isn't it...

    MR. TODD: That eventually that the...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Oh, no doubt about it .

    MR. TODD: The assumption is that once you realize how much sugar that Cuba could provide and does provide the world...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. TODD: ...it really...

    MR. GREGORY: We had beet sugar and lunar colonies.

    MR. TODD: Beet sugar maybe...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: And lunar, and lunar colonies...

    MR. TODD: Dwight Schrute and his beet farm.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: And, and....

    MS. GOODWIN: Are these, are these the big ideas you want?

    MR. TODD: He's getting a subsidy.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: These, these are not quite the big ideas I, I was talking about. I'm actually talking about cutting spending instead, instead of setting up colonies on the moon.

    MR. TODD: But you know, you know, in all honesty, Mitt Romney , I've, I've heard this from a lot of Republicans who, who obviously don't want Newt , they want -- where's the big idea . He's got no big idea other than of this field, I'm the best guy. I'm going to give you the best chance at holding the House and, and winning the Senate . I don't even think sometimes he's at beating Obama , but I'm not going to embarrass the party.

    MS. GOODWIN: I think he thought , he thought that intellect would make it work but temperament is far more important than intellect. And I 'm afraid the temperament has been the problem that showed up, when the angry Newt returned.

    MR. GREGORY: Hm, quickly.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: But even on the 15 percent tax reform , he could win conservatives over if he said, you're right, I paid 14, 15 percent, but that's really double taxation . Let me explain to you how the tax code works. Let me explain to you how I think it's destructive, and he could go -- he just, he never connects the dots for conservatives.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to be watching. Tuesday, the big vote. Before we go this morning, a quick programming note. This week I sat down with Richard Cordray , the man President Obama chose to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau . You can watch that on our blog presspass.msnbc.com. Stay with NBC and MSNBC for continuing coverage of the countdown to the Florida primary and the results here Tuesday night. That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS .

updated 2/6/2012 9:56:19 AM ET 2012-02-06T14:56:19

MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, battleground four. Is Romney poised for rebound? Romney and Gingrich are dueling for victory in the Sunshine State, offering a final pitch to voters.

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(Videotape)

FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): I think as you look at the speaker's record over time, it's been highly erratic.

FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): If you've been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate. And when you get desperate, you say almost anything.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: It's a week where the debate, yet again, loomed large.

(Videotape)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: Have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: This morning we'll debut new Florida poll numbers. Then Romney vs. Gingrich, a debate between both sides. For Romney, Arizona Senator John McCain, who has campaigned aggressively for him in Florida; and for Gingrich, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.

Plus, the president makes his pitch for re-election with a pointed State of the Union address.

(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: With us, the president's top campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

Finally, our political roundtable breaks down the fight for Florida and talks about where the race goes from here. Host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough will be here; presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; and chief White House correspondent, as well as our political director, Chuck Todd.

Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.

MR. GREGORY: And good morning. The final 48 hours before Republican voters go to the polls in Florida and this is how the race now stands in the Sunshine State. Mitt Romney going away a 15 point lead over Gingrich at this point. It's our new NBC News/Marist poll. We're going to go through the final arguments with Senator John McCain for the Romney campaign and former Senator Fred Thompson for the Gingrich campaign in just a moment.

But first, let's go inside those numbers this week with our political director Chuck Todd. Chuck:

MR. CHUCK TODD: Well, good morning, David. Look, this lead for Mitt Romney is across the board. We asked folks, what's the most important quality in making your decision? As you can see here, electability, can beat Obama, 41 percent. And among those voters, Mitt Romney has even a larger lead over Newt Gingrich. But actually, Mitt Romney leads on all of these categories. Position on issues, shares your values, experience to govern. And in fact, experience to govern, can beat Obama, more than a majority and that's where Mitt Romney does best. Now this issue, of course, of electability showed up in our NBC News Wall Street Journal poll. Mitt Romney performs best of the three candidates. But look at this, Rick Santorum actually does better against President Obama than Newt Gingrich and we saw the same thing in our Florida numbers. Same thing, Santorum better than Gingrich. But this long campaign is taking a toll on the Republican Party's brand. Look at this, all three Republican candidates have a net negative-positive-negative approval rating here on their personal numbers. And that, David, is an issue they're going to have to deal with in the general and this is why Mitt Romney needs to wrap this up sooner rather than later.

MR. GREGORY: Chuck, thank you very much. We're going to see you, of course, in a few minutes.

Joining me now for a special debate, two former Republican presidential candidates themselves, the party's 2008 nominee Senator John McCain, who is now backing Mitt Romney; and for Gingrich, former Republican Senator of Tennessee Fred Thompson.

Welcome to both of you.

FMR. SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R-TN): Good to be here.

MR. GREGORY: I do want to make a quick note to our viewers. We had an interview scheduled this morning with candidate Rick Santorum, but we got word late last night that his young daughter, Bella, who has ongoing health issues, has been hospitalized in Philadelphia. Certainly our thoughts and prayers are with Senator Santorum and his family this morning.

Now we'll turn to politics and the all-important race in Florida. Good to have you both here.

Senator McCain, you know, it was Florida in 2008 where you effectively shut the door and got the nomination. What does Florida mean now?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): I think it means perhaps even more than it did in 2008 because you've got split between New Hampshire and South Carolina, as you know. So it's a, it's, it's a vital race here and I'm glad to see that Mitt's doing so well.

MR. GREGORY: For your candidate, Newt Gingrich, he's got to be looking at these Florida numbers after a win in South Carolina saying this could put a lot of pressure on him and make Romney the front-runner again should he win.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, first of all, I know we both want to express our, our concern as far as Rick is concerned, his family. Rick's been a valiant warrior and that family's to be greatly commended for the way they've handled the illness of their small child. And we, we hope for the best.

Yeah. Thanks for starting this show off with those poll numbers. Really, really, really perked my day up. But no, it, it looks like--the other thing, if these poll numbers play out, of course, Romney's going to have a victory in Florida and that'll mean what, 10 percent of the delegates will have been, will have been counted. I think it's, I think you're going to look at a longer race. I think, you know, we'll, we'll see the, the, the two wins and the comparisons and the majority. You know, in South Carolina, Newt won practically every, every group there except those with higher incomes and those with advanced degrees and we'll, we'll, we'll see. If it's a victory for Mitt, we'll, we'll break it down and see what it means. But it's, it's probably about 10 percent of the delegates, I would think, only.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about some of the dynamics here. You have the establishment of the Republican Party saying Newt Gingrich cannot be the nominee. We were talking before we came on about Bob Dole, former Senator Bob Dole, and he issued a pretty tough statement this week. We'll put a portion of it on the screen. He said this, "I haven't been critical of Gingrich, but now it's time to take a stand before it's too late. If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway." Senator Thompson, you know Gingrich well, served with him.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: This is the view, that if he is the nominee, it helps President Obama.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Well, of course I served with him, so I'm one of those people that have endorsed him and there's several others who have served with him, too. But, you know, there's some old score settling going on. Newt, Newt had some run-ins with some, with some people of his own party. But, you know, a lot of them, I'm not talking about Bob Dole who I love, but, but, but a lot of them were holding Newt's coat back when he conceived of a way for the Republicans to take over and have a first Republican House Speaker in 50 years. When they balanced the budget, when he held Bill Clinton's feet to the fire, and finally got welfare reform passed and we were winning elections. And his personality and his leadership skills and all that didn't seem to be a big problem back then, but when those poll numbers dropped off and we started losing some elections we should've won and so forth, everything changed. And now, you know, Mitt's been a front-runner for a long time and people are piling on the bandwagon and so we...

MR. GREGORY: But is this just score settling, Senator McCain? Or is this a real fear as Governor Christie said on this program last week, that he's an embarrassment to the Republican Party?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I, I would not say that, but I would say that we've had some rather unpleasant experiences with Newt Gingrich. And one of them was the government shutdown in 1995. And Bob Dole is the one that finally called a halt to it because it was killing it. I mean, it just--the American people rejected the idea of us shutting down the government.

My problems with Newt have been over earmark spending, billions and billions and billions. They--when Newt Gingrich became speaker, they turned earmarks into an art form and it--as Tom Coburn says, it is the gateway to corruption. And we had members, former members of Congress in jail. Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Abramoff, all of this is because of the corruption that is bred by this outrageous, obscene corruption--earmark process. They went in his first year from $7.8 billion in earmarks to two later to $14.5 billion in earmarks. I read up on the floor of the Senate, 52 pages of earmarks. And so that kind of thing, they had this K Street project where there was this incestuous relationship to the lobbyists on K Street. It was not the principles of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

And finally, he criticized, on March 21st, 1986, on the floor of the Senate, he said that Ronald Reagan was a failure in the war--in the struggle against the Soviet Union. And so--but--and I want to emphasize, the reason why Mitt's got the electability is because of his experiences as governor, as a businessperson, saved the Olympics in Salt Lake City, and I think people are looking at that as a reason for his electability.

MR. GREGORY: But if you go to the negatives for Gingrich, you've gone up against now President Obama head to head.

SEN. McCAIN: Yes.

MR. GREGORY: Can Newt Gingrich beat President Obama?

SEN. McCAIN: I think any of our candidates can, but you just showed the numbers up there. We've got to stop the debates. Enough with the debates because they are driving up our candidates, all of them, unfavorabilities. We've had enough of that. They've turned into mud wrestling instead of exposition of the candidates' views on the issues. We've had enough of that and it's time to recognize who the real adversary is and that's not each other.

MR. GREGORY: What about...

SEN. McCAIN: It's the president.

MR. GREGORY: What about the negative advertising? I mean, this is the, the growth of the super PAC in this race? Do you, do you condemn those as well on all sides?

SEN. McCAIN: I condemn them on all sides and I condemn the United States Supreme Court for their naivety in the Citizens Vs. United, a decision which is an outrage. Now we have a casino owner and his wife, $10 million...

MR. GREGORY: Sheldon Adelson.

SEN. McCAIN: ...into the race. He makes a lot of his money out of Macao. We have, we have--on both sides we have these incredible amounts of money and I guarantee you there will be a scandal, there is too much money washing around politics, and it's making the parties irrelevant, by the way.

MR. GREGORY: A scandal where? You think a scandal--the Gingrich campaign, where the money's coming from?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh, no, no. No. No, no. Not--it's going to be a scandal that has to do with foreign money, it has--a scandal to do with the way it was raised. It--I guarantee you you cannot have this much money washing around without...

MR. GREGORY: Well, Senator Thompson, it...

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Do we, do we really want to talk about money? I understand Sheldon Adelson asked Mitt Romney for a loan, is that right? I mean, I mean come on.

SEN. McCAIN: To get a reverse mortgage.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Citizens United--yeah--Citizens United is not responsible for all this. It didn't stop George Soros and others, you know, from throwing millions and millions of dollars in, and of course not everybody...

MR. GREGORY: Is it hurting the nominee, though, I mentioned, whoever the nominee's going to be?

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: ...not everybody, not everybody can be self-funded. I, I tell you what's hurting the nominee. The--by the way, John Hitt owned the basic philosophical difference that divides Newt from some of his colleagues. Back when Newt was trying to hold Bill Clinton's feet to the fire and Clinton shut down the government, Republicans got credit for it, Newt got a lot of criticism. A lot of people said if we'd held out a little bit longer, Clinton would have caved and, and we would have won the day. Bob Dole went to the floor of the Senate, said "enough is enough" and he thought Republicans were getting hurt and we ought to accommodate Clinton, and that's what we did. So that's the philosophical difference, that's a legitimate difference.

But all this other overkill and unseemliness and bringing members of Congress and putting them in Gingrich rallies, you know, and causing disruptions and, and things like that is, is way overboard. What's hurting us and what's going to be hurting our nominee--let's just say that Romney is the nominee--his, his modus operandi basically is to play Mr. Nice Guy until somebody gets close to him and then he unleashes his attack machine and that's what happened in Iowa, that's what's happening in Florida, spending millions of dollars--I think they spent $16 million in attack ads--or in television ads alone in Florida.

MR. GREGORY: But this isn't beanbag, as Senator McCain once said, I mean this is modern politics.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: But they--yeah, well, it's not, it's not, it's not. It, it, it is beanbag, you know, when the shoe's on the other foot and, and Gingrich does something that they don't like. But he outspent, he outspent--and this goes to electability, too, he outspent Gingrich two-to-one in South Carolina, that wasn't enough. He's outspending Gingrich now five-to-one with the--in Florida--with a lead ad which is totally false according to The Wall Street Journal yesterday saying that he was forced out of Congress in disgrace. Says don't believe Mitt Romney when he tries to peddle this stuff--Wall Street Journal yesterday. And, and, and that's his key to victory. Now there's a front-page story in the Wall--in The New York Times today where Romney's staff patting themselves on the back talking about how mean and down they are, how they've got Matt Drudge in their back pocket and how Romney is in on all of it. And, you know, how they're sending surrogates to these opposition rallies and so forth.

MR. GREGORY: All right, it's been, it's been a negative race.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Is this the way, is this the way to win a general election?

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you--there is a fight going on right now, Senator McCain, within the Republican Party. I mean, really haven't seen this before. You have the rise of the tea party, you have the establishment making an argument, and your former running mate, Sarah Palin, posted something on Facebook.

SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: I want to look at a portion of it. It was very interesting. She writes, "I have great concern about the GOP establishment trying to anoint a candidate without the blessing of the grass roots and all the needed energy and resources we as common sense constitutional conservatives could bring to the general election in order to defeat President Obama." You do have a split in the party. Does that guarantee that Gingrich could stay in, that this could go on quite a while?

SEN. McCAIN: I think it could go, go on quite a while, which would not be to our benefit. And by the way, if we'd have hung on in 1995, we could have, we could have had--the Libertarian Party could have, could have won the next election. I mean, to say we should have hung on a little bit longer is--I guess is remarkable. But the point is that--I--listen, by the way, I love Sarah and I agree with her. She may have had different experiences with Newt than I did, for example, in 2007 when President Bush showed great courage and started the surge, which is what saved us in Iraq at least militarily, Newt went to the floor and said it was irrelevant and inadequate. He, he attacked Ronald Reagan back in 1986 when we were getting enough attacks from the left.

But again, I want to report, I think that Mitt Romney knows how to work with Democrats, that's the case in Massachusetts. He knows the private sector. And by the way, attacking people who make money in the private sector is--I guess you're going to have Mr. Axelrod on later on, I think he'll be appreciative of that. But the point is that he has the experience and the knowledge and the background. And I've gotten to know Mitt and I've gotten to know his wife and my wife, Cindy, has, and we--I think he's displaying now the kind of, of, of, of delivery and persuasive argument that's going to carry him through.

MR. GREGORY: You did in 2008 attack him as a flip-flopper...

SEN. McCAIN: Sure.

MR. GREGORY: ...as somebody who was on different sides of issues and for his conduct running Bain Capital, so you don't think these are illegitimate issues for Newt Gingrich to be raising now, do you?

SEN. McCAIN: I think that Newt can raise whatever issue he wants. And I know that as we just said, politics is not beanbag. I remember the fights between Ronald Reagan and Bush, who later chose him as vice president. Mitt Romney was on the very short list of my consideration to be a running mate. These things, when they're over, you've got to get together and you got to be sure of what the objective is, and that's victory in the general election.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: I thought--I...

SEN. McCAIN: And I think we can do that, Fred.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think--well, well, we, we better. But I thought we were past the Ronald Reagan stuff. Ronald Reagan's son has endorsed Newt, Nancy Reagan said we're handing off the mantel to--from, from Reagan to Newt. And even Mitt wouldn't back up, you know, the ads and stuff that they've put out on the Ronald Reagan stuff. So that--let's put that aside for a minute.

Here's, here's the underlying, here's the underlying issue; our country's in deep trouble, this is where I'm coming from, Our country is, is possibly on the brink. We're going to have to make some basic decisions. Our economy has stultified, it's stopped, it's--for all practical purposes. I think the Fed indicated they expect that to happen in the, in the foreseeable future with the interest rate statement that they made the other day. We--we're, we're in serious trouble. And we've got a president, you know, who is out there now proceeding to, to divide the American people and mislead the American people, you know, say, "Well, good news, we import more oil--less oil than we did before." Well, it's because of the Obama recession that we're importing less oil. That's like congratulating a sick person for losing weight. And we're going to have to have somebody who can step up there, who is courageous, who is tough, who can challenge Obama not only on his policies but on the philosophical underpinnings of that policy. We don't need a bean counter, we don't need a data processor, you know, even someone who's been a very successful one. We need someone who is courageous and will shake things up in Washington. If you look at Mitt's policies, his capital gains policy, for example, tracks Barack Obama's. We still don't know what his problem with Obamacare is. We've been through 18 debates and we yet--we're yet to know--except it was on a federal level instead of the state level--what his problem with Obamacare is.

MR. GREGORY: Let me--before we go, we're just about out of time, I do want to ask about one Arizona issue, Senator, as you remember, this week got a lot of attention.

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: This picture of the governor of Arizona in a heated discussion with President Obama. You said this week it's very well known that Obama has a prickly personality.

SEN. McCAIN: Unlike me.

MR. GREGORY: Are you concerned about that incident?

SEN. McCAIN: I--I'm concerned about whenever there's a situation that evolves like that. It doesn't help the president, doesn't help our governor. But she does have a very legitimate point. He has been to Arizona on many occasions. He's never been to the U.S. Arizona border where fast and furious took place, where we had a border patrol agent killed, where we got--drugs are flowing into Arizona, into Phoenix and around the country; 40,000 people have been killed on the other side of the border, and the president won't even go down and have a look? That's one of the things that--main subject of her letter. So let's invite the president down on this whole immigration issue. But securing the border--look, they've got--the cartels have people sitting on mountaintops in Arizona guiding the drug runners up to Phoenix, where it's distributed all over the country. It's a big issue with our governor and it should be.

MR. GREGORY: As you know, you're making history this morning, your 63rd appearance, tying Senator Dole for most appearances on MEET THE PRESS.

MR. GREGORY: Old Bob Dole.

MR. GREGORY: And you realize that you'll have to have one more and then you get the Universal Studios tour package. That's, that's what you'll get for 64.

FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: I think you're ready for a...(unintelligible).

SEN. McCAIN: And I--thanks for having me on with my old pal.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Thank you both very much. We'll be watching this campaign.

Coming up, as Republicans continue to battle in the Sunshine State, President Obama unveiled his own campaign pitch this week. Is he in a better position for re-election than many first thought? We'll take a look inside the president's 2012 playbook with his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod. Plus, Decision 2012. Just two days now before the Florida Republican primary. Our political roundtable is here to weigh in on the state of the race. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and NBC's own Chuck Todd.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: Coming next, we'll take a look at the president's re-election playbook with his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod. Plus, our roundtable will take an in-depth look at the state of the race. Joining me Chuck Todd, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joe Scarborough, up next after this brief commercial break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: Joining me now is senior adviser to President Obama's re-election campaign, David Axelrod.

Always good to have you. Welcome back.

MR. DAVID AXELROD: Great to be back. Hey, before we start, let me also add my prayers and thoughts for Senator Santorum and his child. I've, I've gone through problems with a child...

MR. GREGORY: Sure.

MR. AXELROD: ...and, and my heart goes out to him and his family.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, as, as does ours, and does promise to be back on the campaign trail, so we'll be watching that.

Let's talk about the State of the Union address that the president gave this week. It was, in many ways, a campaign blueprint for how he intends to run against Republicans, whoever the nominee is this fall. And one of the criticisms of it has been how relatively small it was in terms of on, on big problems that the country faces. David Brooks, a regular on this program, as you know, wrote this in his column on Friday, and I'll have you react to it.

MR. AXELROD: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: "This election is about averting national decline. The president is making a mistake," Brooks writes, "in ceding the size advantage to the Republicans. The Republicans at least speak with epic alarm about the nation's problems. They're unified behind big tax and welfare state reforms that would purge Washington and shake things up. The president is making a mistake in running a Sunset Boulevard campaign: I am big; it's my presidency that got small." Has he trimmed his sails a bit from being a transform--a transformative leader?

MR. AXELROD: No, I, I, look, I love David. He's a great friend of mine, one of the great public thinkers in America. But the truth is the Republicans aren't offering ideas to, to deal with our economic challenges. They want to go back to the same ideas that were in place in the last decade. And as far as the president goes, David may not think it's a big idea to transform our education system and, and increase access to higher education and turn our community college system into a skills training center so people can get jobs. He may not think getting control of our energy future is a big idea. He may not think reviving American manufacturing is a big idea, but most Americans would disagree with him who are living out there in the real world.

MR. GREGORY: But if you look at how dire the fiscal situation is in the country, we just came off a debt debacle this past summer. Alan Simpson responding to the State of the Union said, where's the guts? Where's the hard stuff? Where's beef? Where are the hard choices that Americans are going to have to make? What are Americans have--going to have to do with less of if this president gets re-election?

MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think Americans are struggling in this economy right now, and we're going to have to have shared sacrifice. The president's already authorized $2 trillion in savings and cuts in the budget, and he is willing to do more. The big debate, David, is how do we do it in a balanced way. Are we going to pursue the, the path of, of a Mitt Romney and others in the Republican Party who basically say we, we're going to do this without any new revenues so that instead of asking millionaires to pay a little bit more, we are going to cut education by 25 percent, cut research and development by 25 percent, cut our investments in, in energy and other areas that we need to grow this, an economy in a way in which the middle class and opportunity is growing and not shrinking.

MR. GREGORY: But we're not dealing with the big drivers of the debt, as you know. The debt commission that the president convened is not advice that he acted on. And the reality is that the fiscal situation is dire. If we're not dealing with entitlements--what, you talk about shared sacrifice, would the resident...

MR. AXELROD: Listen, the...

MR. GREGORY: Wait a second. He--there was a stimulus plan. There was a new healthcare entitlement, but there was nothing dealing with the big drivers of the day.

MR. AXELROD: The president made clear in that speech, as he did to Speaker Gingrich last summer, that he is willing to do a grand bargain, a, a large deal to deal with our deficits. But understand, Senator Simpson put forward a proposal. He was impaneled by the president. He and Mr. Bowles put, put forward a proposal that would have called for significant new revenues primarily by asking more of upper income Americans. And the Republican Party said, no, we will not do that. And so we have to have a balanced way forward. And when the Republican Party is willing to step forward, the Republicans in Congress, and say, "yes, let's do this together in a balanced way, let's protect the key investments we need to grow and, yes, cut and ask a little more from people who can afford it and are willing, and willing to do it," I think.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the Republican race. It seemed that Mitt Romney was very much on the president's mind when he gave his State of the Union address, when he talked about an argument he's clearly going to take to the general election, which is economic fairness or requiring the rich to pay more in taxes. This is a portion of what the president said.

(Videotape, Tuesday)

PRES. OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: It was revealed, of course, in tax returns this week that Governor Romney paid an effective tax rate of under 15 percent or about 15 percent over the last couple of years. But he was asked about his wealth. He was asked about his taxes during the debates and this is what he said.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: I have earned the money that I have. I didn't inherit it. I take risk, I make investment. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: So what did Governor Romney do that was unfair? Did he not play by the rules?

MR. AXELROD: Well, here's...

MR. GREGORY: Did he not use the free enterprise system in the correct way?

MR. AXELROD: Here's the question--no, he played--he absolutely--I'm not saying he didn't play by the rules. The rules allow you to have Swiss bank accounts, the rules allow you to put your money in the Cayman Islands and to set up businesses in Bermuda and so on. The rules allow all of that. The question is, are the rules right? He would continue those rules. They are not right. It's not right that the--that someone like Governor Romney can make $20, $22 million and pay an effective tax rate lower than the average middle class person in this country. Not at a time, David, when we have all these needs. And this goes back to our previous discussion. If we're going to solve this deficit then everybody's going to have to give a little. And that includes people at the top. His view is that somehow our economy profits because he has these special benefits that other people of more modest means don't have. And we just disagree.

MR. GREGORY: Why doesn't that appear to be a more poll-tested position, which is if you really want shared sacrifice, then the middle class should pay taxes, too. I mean, roll back the Bush tax cuts for everybody rather than looking at the, you know, just having the rich pay more, which you look at polling and see that you have some political for. If it's shared sacrifice, why not say to everybody, everybody's going to have to do with less in terms of a social safety net, in terms of taxes and all the rest.

MR. AXELROD: Listen, there is no--there is--there is--there is no doubt that there's been--that there have been sacrifices in those $2 trillion of cuts and savings that we've already outlined. There will be more sacrifices necessary. We will have to address issues involving the--those programs. But it--the middle class is--has seen their income shrink over the last decade, not grow. And people like Governor Romney have done spectacularly well. So to say let's put the burden on the middle class seems to be counterintuitive here.

MR. GREGORY: What has Governor Romney done when he was head of Bain, his business practices, his experience in the free market, that gives the president real concerns that he's going to take to the American people?

MR. AXELROD: I think the concern should be on the part of the American people because look, he's, he's, he's done--he has a great track record of creating wealth for himself and his partners and he's done it by closing a thousand plants and stores and offices around the country. He's done it by outsourcing jobs. He's done it by profiting--by loading companies down with debt and them putting them into bankruptcy, on which he and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars. I'm--the point is, is that the vision of how we build a stronger economy?

MR. GREGORY: There were jobs gained.

MR. AXELROD: Most Americans...

MR. GREGORY: There were jobs gained, as well, given their investments.

MR. AXELROD: Well...

MR. GREGORY: They're putting capital on the line.

MR. AXELROD: ...that number's been shifting around quite a bit, as you know. Governor Romney's offered several different numbers there. But the point is, his philosophy suggests that his emphasis is on creating profit for himself and his, and his partners and his investors, not creating jobs. Look, the truth is, David, he made this same argument when he ran for governor of Massachusetts and what happened when he became governor of Massachusetts? They fell to 47th in the nation in job creation. You know, he's--and now he's running the same, the same game again and I think the American people rightly are going to start looking at...

MR. GREGORY: Well, you don't really want to--the president doesn't want to run on a record of jobs loss, does he? Because he's going to lose that bet, isn't he, against Governor Romney?

MR. AXELROD: Well, let me just say, Governor Romney in the, in, in his last campaign for president, 2007 and 2008, praised the last administration for their economic policies and for shoring up the economy at a time when we were losing millions of jobs heading into, into our administration, four, four million jobs in the last six months. That's his idea of strong economic policy. So I think he's going to have a hard time making that argument to the American people.

MR. GREGORY: But you--a lot of people hear you and think that you are somehow, you know, casting dispersions on venture capital. How is that different than the federal government under this president investing in clean energy companies like Solyndra that failed, costing the taxpayers a great deal of money and yet the president said in the State of the Union, you know, we're going to double down. We're not going to turn our back on clean energy. What's the difference in those kind of moves? It's kind of the government acting as venture capitalists?

MR. AXELROD: First of all, leveraged buyouts of the sort that Governor Romney profited off of are quite different, where you buy a company, load it down with debt, strip it down, let it go bankrupt and then make money off of fees on the bankruptcy. That's quite different. That's a different approach.

MR. GREGORY: Well, it is capitalism making countries stronger, a lot of people would argue.

MR. AXELROD: Yes, you--yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes. And by the way, you raise that point, I don't hear Governor Romney saying, yeah, I applaud the president for doing things that try and encourage clean energy in this country, which we area doing. We're going to double renewable energy use in this country over the course of four years. On jobs, 22 straight months of private sector job growth. Quite a contrast to the six months before we took office when Governor Romney said the policies were in place that we're shoring up the economy.

MR. GREGORY: What do you think's going to happen in this race? I know you don't want to handicap this, I've heard you say that before. You're obviously gearing up for Governor Romney. You've also been through a primary fight that goes on a while. Do you think this one goes on, particularly because of this split between the establishment and the tea party that I was talking about a few minutes ago?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think it could. I've always thought that Governor Romney was a weak front-runner. I still think he's a weak front-runner. He's overpowered Gingrich in Florida with, you know, five-to-one spending advantage and a very negative campaign. But the nature of the process is you have to accumulate the delegates necessary to win. And I, I believe this will go on for a while. The thing that's unusual, though, is, you know, when we had a long primary process with Senator Clinton and it strengthened us. We didn't see our numbers erode the way Governor Romney's numbers have eroded. Independent voters are fleeing Governor Romney now and his numbers are falling. He's underwater nationally. This process is not helping him because he's so intent on pandering to those forces on, on the right of his party to try and win this nomination and he's been so mercurial in his positions. I always say, you know, he has his own version of states' rights. He thinks he has the right to change his position in every state he campaigns in. In Iowa, he was very--he ran to the right of Gingrich on immigration. In Florida, he's tried to run in a different direction. And on every single issue, including, by the way, whether he would release his tax returns, he's been all over the lot.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. AXELROD: And it's caused people to doubt his core as, as, as one of my colleagues said here some months ago. So think this has not been a helpful process for him.

MR. GREGORY: You look at what you're up against, what President Obama's up against, it was captured in our--not ours, it was Washington Post ABC News poll recently. Are you better off or worse off financially with Obama as president? Thirty percent saying worse off, 54 percent saying about the same. This is obviously going to be a fight about the economy. One of the things I, I have a question about as I watch this president campaign and as I read various criticism of him and his style, does he like politics?

MR. AXELROD: I think he likes doing things that make our country stronger, that make communities stronger. That's why he got into public life. I think he loves being with people. He's--he, he enjoys that, you can see that when he's out and, and campaigning. Does he like, does he like the kind of sordid stuff that we've seen on display in Florida in the last week? Probably not. I think any reasonable person would not. But, but I think he relishes the opportunity to help devote, to devote himself to help making this a stronger country.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. AXELROD: And he believes very deeply that if we don't have an economic policy that has at its heart the idea that a growing middle class is the key to a strong economy, then we're going to have a very dim future. On the other hand, we have an opportunity to build a much brighter future here. So he's very motivated.

MR. GREGORY: You, you say to someone who maybe voted for Obama in 2008 and is on the fence now, why he deserves this second term.

MR. AXELROD: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: Not quite the bumper sticker, maybe a little bit longer answer, what is it?

MR. AXELROD: I think I would say that he's lead the country through a very difficult time. We have a long way to go. We're in a much different place than we were when he got there and he has a vision of how to build a country, as I said, an economy in which hard work pays off, responsibility's rewarded, everybody plays by the same rules and everybody gets a fair shake. And he believes that is--that is rooted in our firmest American values and our most important American values and it is the key to our, to our future.

MR. GREGORY: Congratulations on your Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago.

MR. AXELROD: Thank you. Appreciate that.

MR. GREGORY: (Unintelligible)

MR. AXELROD: Hope to have you out there.

MR. GREGORY: Absolutely. David Axelrod, thank you very much.

MR. AXELROD: Good to be with you.

MR. GREGORY: And coming up, two days before the Republican primary in Florida, in our new NBC poll in the Sunshine State shows Mitt Romney in the driver's seat. Can Gingrich close the gap? And what about the road forward? Who does the political calendar favor in these battles ahead? Our roundtable's coming up. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough is here, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and NBC's Chuck Todd. Right after the break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: And we're back with our political roundtable. Joining me, chief White House correspondent, our political director for NBC News, Chuck Todd; presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; and host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Florida's own Joe Scarborough. Welcome to you all.

Well, here it is again, we'll put up our latest poll numbers to give you a sense of where the race is, 42 percent to 27 percent, Joe Scarborough. Romney's in a very commanding position. How has he done it? How has he put himself in a position to really make Florida the rebound state for him?

MR. JOE SCARBOROUGH: You don't, you don't have to ask me, just ask his advisers who are spilling their guts on the front page of The New York Times telling the world that it wasn't the candidate that turned things around, it was their own brilliance. I, I find it to be one of the most fascinating articles that in the middle of the campaign you would have, have people doing it. But their goal was--two goals, one, to make Newt angry, and two, to make Mitt look tough, and that's worked well. But let's not overstate it. A week ago we were all saying Florida's a big state.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: Chuck and I know this. You win by having lots of money and running lots of 30-second ads and having the wind at your back. I mean, these advisers can take all the credit they want. At the end things were just--this--I mean this--Florida--Florida's a Romney state.

MR. GREGORY: And look at the money. We put it up on the screen. You just--it's really quite striking: $15.7 million between the campaign and the super PAC, dwarfing Gingrich. And this was simple strategy: We're not playing the air of inevitability here, we got to crush Gingrich.

MR. TODD: No, it--and this is the story, it's the money. I mean, Joe's right, you're--it is surprising to see all of these strategists take credit in The New York Times without giving their candidate any credit, but that's going to be an interesting little internal spat...

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. TODD: ...probably down the road. But money was the answer here. They just carpet-bombed Gingrich. And, you know, it was interesting, in our poll that made Gingrich so unelectable to some conservatives that if you factor--if you get rid of the Santorum vote and, and factor in the second choices, Romney's lead actually grows...

MR. GREGORY: Really.

MR. TODD: ...but a point. So this idea that somehow conservatives are splitting the vote, not anymore, they really have made Newt Gingrich not just unelectable, unacceptable.

MR. GREGORY: But, Doris, they did it in part--not--debate performances, which I'll talk about in just a second, but also getting the establishment all together to say, "We must stop Gingrich, he cannot be the nominee, he can't win."

MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I thought it was an extraordinary thing that Senator Dole said...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. GOODWIN: ...where he said, "This is our last stand." Otherwise there's going to--I mean that's the--Custer's last stand is coming. Unless we stop him in Florida, we're going to lose the election by a landslide. And the only help, help for Gingrich in that is then he has to try and mobilize the tea party people who feel that the establishment has closed in on him, and that's where Herman Cain comes in...

MR. GREGORY: Sure.

MS. GOODWIN: ...and Sarah Palin, etc., etc.

MR. GREGORY: But look at the debates as well because we saw a different Romney. There's only been 300, 400 debates, and here you really saw Romney--I mean this was the exchange over blind trusts and investments. Watch.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: First of all, my investments are not made by me, my investments for the last 10 years have been into blind trusts managed by a trustee. But have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: All right.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: I mean, Joe, it was amazing. It was like, "I'm not the only one who's stolen Halloween candy from four year olds"...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: Exactly.

MR. GREGORY: ..."you've done it, too."

MR. SCARBOROUGH: And, and as Romney's staff members have told us, they're so brilliant, they heard Newt talking about it that day...

MR. TODD: Yeah.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...Boston did some research.

MR. TODD: Right.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: And...(unintelligible). But listen, let--a week ago we were talking about the Newt surge, and immediately after Newt won, Doris is right, the Republican establishment rebelled. Just like immediately after Romney won New Hampshire and looked inevitable, the conservative establishment rebelled. This is going to be going a long time and it's ugly for the Republican brand when you have Sarah Palin coming out comparing the GOP establishment to Stalin. Last time I checked, the establishment hasn't killed 30 million people, but OK, whatever. It's getting uglier. The--Chuck's poll showed these guys are upside down now.

MS. GOODWIN: And, you know...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: In the, in the, in the positive-negative ratings, this is hurting the Republican Party moving forward.

MS. GOODWIN: And the problem is that Newt lived and died by those debates and he didn't do well in that last debate. I mean, first he complained last week that there was no, no reaction allowed from the crowd.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. GOODWIN: Then he said there was too much, it destroyed his rhythm. And then he says, "I want to go back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates." If he could go back to those debates, do you know the crowd was able to really respond, they would yell out "Hit him again, hit him again!"

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MS. GOODWIN: "Harder!" like football games. What would happen to his rhythm if that happened?

MR. GREGORY: What, what about the money issue? We'll put up on the screen what the tax returns showed for Mitt Romney and how much money he made over the last couple of years. You made a point this week in, in--before we came on the program that wealth alone is not a problem for presidents, right?

MS. GOODWIN: Absolutely. I think...

MR. GREGORY: George Washington did OK.

MS. GOODWIN: And so did JFK and so did Teddy Roosevelt and so did Franklin Roosevelt. But each one of those men had something in their lives that allowed them to connect to ordinary people. Teddy Roosevelt had gone to the West as a cowboy after his wife and mother died on the same day, he was in the Rough Riders. FDR had polio, which took him out of that privileged life and allowed him to connect to ordinary people. JFK had been in World War II. The problem for Romney is maybe he's had those experiences, but they certainly don't show when he says, "I want to make a $10,000 bet" or "Oh, I made $324,000 in speaking fees, that was small change" or "I've had a pink slip" or "I like firing people." That shows that somehow his life experience hasn't connected him empathetically. We don't care if people are wealthy, what matters is can they understand our problems and can they empathize with us?

MR. TODD: Well, and look, and, and now he's got this one-line attack that anybody can do: Swiss bank account. Right? It's one phrase that's going to come up over and over again.

MR. GREGORY: You heard Axelrod use it.

MR. TODD: He used it. You've heard Newt Gingrich use it. You're going to hear this being used as shorthand to describe his wealth. And, you know, remember, last week we were hearing--saying, you know, Mitt Romney doesn't just have a Newt Gingrich problem, he has a Mitt Romney problem. They fixed their Newt Gingrich problem for now. And, and by the way, the, the Romney people seem to realize the, the lesson they learned from the first time they thought they destroyed Gingrich was don't let up, so they're not going to let up this time, they're not going to suddenly win Florida by 15 points and say we're going to start acting like the nominee. They know this, this issue of, of the revenge of the tea party could come bite them at some point in time, and so they're going to keep their foot on Newt Gingrich's neck.

MR. GREGORY: Well...

MR. TODD: But they still haven't fixed their Mitt Romney problem.

MR. GREGORY: Well--and I--and I want to talk about the calendar in just a second. First, Joe Scarborough, if we talk about the rise and the fall of Newt Gingrich--you wrote something in Politico that I thought was quite vibrant in its use of language. "For those tempted to once again predict the speedy collapse of his campaign, consider yourself forewarned. I've known this guy a long time to realize that the only three species destined to survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches, Cher and Newton Leroy Gingrich."

MR. SCARBOROUGH: And let me tell you something, a 20-point loss in Florida, that's not a nuclear holocaust. Newt will be back. February's a down month. That gives the strategists three, four weeks to plan. And then look at the calendar.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, we'll put it up.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: You've got Georgia, Alabama...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas soon after that. If I've got to bet on Newt's strongest states, I list all of those. It's exactly what he needs. This is not the end of Newt Gingrich, this is not even the beginning of the end of Newt Gingrich. This battle is going well into the summer, and that's really bad news for Mitt Romney...

MR. GREGORY: Well, I mean...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...and bad news for the Republican Party.

MR. GREGORY: And, Chuck, you've been reporting on this all week.

MR. TODD: Right.

MR. GREGORY: Look at the national numbers in our own poll that shows Gingrich as a national favorite. I mean, I think to Joe's point, that if he can hold on, get to Super Tuesday...

MR. TODD: Right.

MR. GREGORY: ...where the revenge of a Southern candidate could again pull sway.

MR. TODD: And that's all he is. Let's just remember, he, when you really look deep in our poll, he had a monster lead among Southerners, the very conservative, and, and tea party. Well, the heart of all three of those is outsized in the South. So the, the way the calendar sits--sets up in March would be, could be a month for Gingrich. But he could go, you know, February, remember, there was this dead--February was a horrible period for Hillary Clinton. She couldn't find a place to win and she was counting on March because March had Ohio, and that's where she was going to come back. And I, I have to say, March looks like another--February looks like a bad time for Gingrich. Where's he going to win? Those caucuses, Ron Paul's going to do well. But Mitt--they're also set up pretty well for Mitt Romney.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. TODD: Then you have Arizona and Michigan. Well, Michigan's one of Romney's home states. That's where he was born. Arizona, I can make an argument that Gingrich should do fairly well there. It's a very conservative state. But his position on immigration, I think the Romney people are going to be able to exploit it and make it a liability for him there. And so he could go sort of oh for the next six going into Super Tuesday, and that's a problem.

MR. GREGORY: Meantime, Doris Kearns Goodwin, you've got the president, President Obama who got into this game big. And, you know, there can be a lot of debates, but when you're president and you can give a State of the Union address and reach 40 million people. I--even if the numbers are down, it's still pretty commanding. Here's the cover of The New Yorker magazine and it shows President Obama watching the Super Bowl, and it's Romney and Gingrich tackling each other in what's becoming a more and more bruising contest. What kind of week did Obama have with his unveiling, if you will, of his campaign approach?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think he had a terrific week in two respects. One, as you suggest, that the more coarse the language is between the Republicans, the more they lose as a brand for the party. It's the worst I've seen it in a while. It really is. I mean, it's, it's not as bad as Van Buren when the, the song was "Van Buren deserves the lowest place in Hell. Van Buren." They haven't descended to that.

Now on the other side...

MR. TODD: Give it...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: It was ugly.

MR. TODD: It was ugly, yeah. Yeah. Back in the good old days.

MS. GOODWIN: The, the State of the Union, I think, gave the tone for the campaign in a very positive way. Fairness is an issue that I think is felt in people's hearts and minds, and that was the central argument of the thing...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. GOODWIN: ...that somehow mobility has been hurt in this country. The idea that brought immigrants to the shore, that if you worked hard you could have a decent life and you could move up, people sense that that's been lost. And he said that that's what he's going to fight for, fairness. That the systems is rigged against ordinary people.

MR. GREGORY: But, Joe, you talk about this all the time on "Morning Joe." The problems we face are so big, the challenges are so monumental, our politics seem small. Is it a fair knock on the president to say, "Hey, what happened to the transformational figure who was going to--say to the American people we're going to have to do with a lot less if we're going to get ourselves back on a better financial footing?"

MR. SCARBOROUGH: I, I heard the speech before, and Chuck, Chuck actually said the same thing joking to David Axelrod. This was Bill Clinton's 1996-1997 speech all over again, where you take all of these small items, like school uniforms. They're all poll tested. They're market driven. You put them all in a speech. There's no overarching theme, and it is a great campaign speech. It's not a great governing document. I thought David Brooks nailed it. This is sort of depressing. If you look at our politics on both sides, Republican and Democrat alike, look what they're saying and then compare that to what Simpson-Bowles did when they actually went out and took a chance on trying to save this country fiscally. That's not happening on the Republican side. It's certainly not happening out of the White House. But the president's doing exactly what he has to do to move towards re-election, and that is say, you know, say the right words and, and watch the Republicans destroy each other.

MR. GREGORY: Chuck Todd, you know, I was thinking this week, I don't know what the most fascinating part of America is, but Newt Gingrich this week told me.

(Videotape, Monday)

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, I pretty enthusiastically early in my career kept trying to figure out how to get away from the sugar subsidy, and I found out one of, one of the fascinating things about America which was that cane sugar hides behind beet sugar, and there are just too many beet sugar districts in the United States.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: OK, I have to confess, I'm from Los Angeles, I didn't know what this meant. But, but you've helped me, a Floridian.

MR. TODD: I, well, but look...

MS. GOODWIN: I...

MR. TODD: ...you know, you know, big sugar cane is what happens. There's actually a whole conspiracy that the whole embargo on Cuba actually, there are some who believe in that, that it's all about propping up the sugar industry.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: Must be sugar.

MR. TODD: Because eventually...

MR. GREGORY: The sugar...

MR. TODD: No, you laugh, but, right, Joe?

MS. GOODWIN: Isn't it...

MR. TODD: That eventually that the...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: Oh, no doubt about it.

MR. TODD: The assumption is that once you realize how much sugar that Cuba could provide and does provide the world...

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. TODD: ...it really...

MR. GREGORY: We had beet sugar and lunar colonies.

MR. TODD: Beet sugar maybe...

MR. SCARBOROUGH: And lunar, and lunar colonies...

MR. TODD: Dwight Schrute and his beet farm.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: And, and...(unintelligible).

MS. GOODWIN: Are these, are these the big ideas you want?

MR. TODD: He's getting a subsidy.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: These, these are not quite the big ideas I, I was talking about. I'm actually talking about cutting spending instead, instead of setting up colonies on the moon.

MR. TODD: But you know, you know, in all honesty, Mitt Romney, I've, I've heard this from a lot of Republicans who, who obviously don't want Newt, they want--where's the big idea. He's got no big idea other than of this field, I'm the best guy. I'm going to give you the best chance at holding the House and, and winning the Senate. I don't even think sometimes he's at beating Obama, but I'm not going to embarrass the party.

MS. GOODWIN: I think he thought, he thought that intellect would make it work but temperament is far more important than intellect. And I'm afraid the temperament has been the problem that showed up, when the angry Newt returned.

MR. GREGORY: Hm, quickly.

MR. SCARBOROUGH: But even on the 15 percent tax reform, he could win conservatives over if he said, you're right, I paid 14, 15 percent, but that's really double taxation. Let me explain to you how the tax code works. Let me explain to you how I think it's destructive, and he could go--he just, he never connects the dots for conservatives.

MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to be watching. Tuesday, the big vote.

Before we go this morning, a quick programming note. This week I sat down with Richard Cordray, the man President Obama chose to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can watch that on our blog presspass.msnbc.com.

Stay with NBC and MSNBC for continuing coverage of the countdown to the Florida primary and the results here Tuesday night. That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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