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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 9:56:31 AM ET 2012-02-06T14:56:31

MR. DAVID GREGORY: On this Super Bowl Sunday here on NBC, we are focused on the big political prize of the year, the GOP nomination. Governor Romney got another step close with a win in the Nevada caucus last night.

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(Videotape)

FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): You know, this is not the first time you gave your vote of confidence and this time I'm going to take it to the White House.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: But is another Romney misstep about the poor only going to heighten anxiety among conservatives about his prospects for the fall?

(Videotape)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: I'm not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: I will ask his primary challenger, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich when he joins me live this morning.

Then, tonight in Indianapolis, it's the New York Giants vs. the New England Patriots for the Super Bowl and we've got all sides here this morning. Republican governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels, independent mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, and Democratic governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick to talk about the economy, politics and yeah, a little football.

Plus, our political roundtable. The new jobs number shows unemployment down to 8.3 percent, another welcome sign of recovery even as Republicans argue the rebound should be much stronger. With us, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, New York Times columnist David Brooks, vice chair of the Democratic Caucus California Congressman Xavier Becerra, and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

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

MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Picking up his third win of the primary season, Mitt Romney scored a solid victory last night in the Nevada caucuses. The final votes are still being tabulated, but this is where the count stands this morning. It is Romney at 48 percent, Newt Gingrich a distant second at 23 percent, followed by Ron Paul at 19, Santorum at 11 percent. Last night, a defiant Gingrich held an election night press conference denouncing Romney and vowing to stay in the race.

(Videotape)

FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): I am a candidate for president of the United States. I will be a candidate for president of the United States. We will go to Tampa. What happens is every primary day or caucus day, the Romney headquarters in Boston sends out the rumor that they believe I will withdraw, which is, of course, their greatest fantasy. I'm not going to withdraw. I'm actually pretty happy with where we are and I think the contrast between Governor Romney and me is going to get wider and wider and clearer and clearer over the next few weeks.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Republican presidential candidate, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich joins me again live this morning.

Mr. Speaker, good to see you.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: It's good to be with you, David.

MR. GREGORY: Let's look at some of the exit polling. Among conservatives, true conservatives in Nevada and this is how it broke down, decidedly for Governor Romney, beating you in all of the categories, very conservative, tea party supporters, white evangelicals. This is supposed to be your base, Mr. Speaker. So what is the path for you to win this nomination and what's the rationale?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, this is a state he won last time, he won it this time. Our goal is to get to Super Tuesday where we're in much more favorable territory. As you'll note, even in Florida where I was outspent 5-to-1, we carried all of the panhandle area, we actually carried more counties than he did. And so we want to get to Georgia, to Alabama, to Tennessee. We want to get to states, Texas. We believe by the time Texas is over, we'll be very, very competitive in delegate count and I think that the key from my standpoint is to make this a big choice campaign. You just had a quote from Governor Romney that's a perfect example. He says he doesn't worry much about the very poor because they have a safety net. Well, the safety net in many ways has become a spider web. It traps them at the bottom. Conservatives, real conservatives, who've been trying for years to develop a trampoline effect where we help people leave poverty, we help them find better schools, we help them find jobs, we help them improve neighborhoods. And I think there are a series of very big differences about the level of change that we would bring to Washington.

MR. GREGORY: Well...

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: So my goal over the next few weeks is to draw a very sharp distinction between Romney's positions, which are very--the Wall Street Journal described them as timid and in terms of tax policies, being like Obama. So this, you know, I don't want to have a process campaign. I want to have an issue-oriented campaign and when we've been able to get those issues out in the open, we've done very, very well.

MR. GREGORY: Well, let me come back on a couple of points there. You say you don't want to have a process campaign, what you've been doing primarily is complaining about the fact that you've been outspent and about the fact that Governor Romney has been incredibly negative. I mean, you've had all these opportunities on the debate stage...

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: No. What I've been doing, David...

MR. GREGORY: You've had the opportunity on the debate stage to make this contrast...

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: What I've been doing, David, is responding to questions.

MR. GREGORY: ...to make it about issues.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: OK. Right. And, and, and 15 out of the...(unintelligible)...people think I did a pretty good job of that. I suspect the next one will. But it's beyond that. I want to focus on how big the change has to be in Washington. I want to focus on the degree to which we need a tax policy that is very aggressively pro-jobs. You know, you cited going into the show today that unemployment has dropped. Well, it has dropped. You know why it's dropped? Because over 4 percent of the people who would be unemployed have quit looking for work. If we had the same participation rate we had a couple of years ago, we'd be at 12 or 13 percent unemployment. People just quit looking. That's not a very positive sign for the economy. It's actually a sign of weakness. We need a much more aggressive tax policy.

We need an American energy policy. Look what's happening in the Middle East. We are hostage to a region which is very volatile and in which the forces of Iran are gaining strength and the Obama administration's basically growing more and more timid and more and more inclined to withdraw. So I think there are very large issues at stake and my goal is to communicate those issues and to get them out there.

MR. GREGORY: I want to come back to each of these issues in turn, but one more process question about just the campaign. You said in your press conference last night that you want to make this a definitional campaign to disqualify Romney in the minds of conservatives. What specifically do you mean and how to you do that?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, I think if you look at his record as governor, as opposed to his advertising, his record as governor is very clear. He was pro-abortion, he was pro-gun control, he was pro-tax increase. He ended up third from the bottom in job creation, 48,000 manufacturing jobs left because the combination of Romneycare and tax increases made him, in fact, a very weak governor in terms of job creation. The challenge is to say do you really want to go into a fall election with a moderate candidate? The last two times we nominated a moderate, 1996 and 2008, we lost badly. A conservative candidate can offer a much greater contrast with President Obama, can offer a much bigger difference. And I'm prepared, for example, to talk about young people having the right to have a personal Social Security savings account, which actually saves Social Security, increases their income and eliminates about 50 percent of the disparity of wealth in the country within a generation. So I think the difference between timidly trying to manage at the margins a system that has to be profoundly changed and boldly taking it on is a very, very big difference. And I don't think a timid approach is going to beat Obama this fall.

MR. GREGORY: Let me go back to a couple of the issues that you've already mentioned, poverty and the economy, more broadly, 46 million Americans in poverty, 15 percent. You said there is a big distinction between how you would help the poor and what Governor Romney would do. I've been looking at this, researching your own positions, I don't see much difference. You believe as Governor Romney does that this should primarily be an enterprise of states in the United States to provide that social safety net to poor Americans.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, but one of the big differences is I believe there should be very dramatic increase in school choice for the very poor. I also--I'll give you an example that he himself mentioned on the very same day. He favors indexing minimum wage when virtually every economist in the country believes that further makes it difficult for young people to get a job. This is a country right now where 43 percent of young African-Americans are unemployed. In Nevada, it's 31 percent of all teenagers are unemployed. We should be making it easier for young people to get a job, not raising the cost of hiring young people, making it harder. I'm for much, much bolder tax changes than he is. For example, I would have a zero capital gains rate, he limits his capital gains tax break to people under 200,000. That means a million small businesses would not be eligible for his tax plan. I also have a 15 percent flat tax option modeled on something they've done in Hong Kong for the last 40 years. That's actually about the Romney tax rate. And look, Americans will be able to fill out one page, list the number of dependents they have, and end up paying about 15 percent on their taxes. My goal is to actually bring government down to the revenue level, not raise revenue to try to catch up with Obama's spending.

MR. GREGORY: Well...

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: And I think that's a very bold difference from Romney.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the economy generally and this jobs report. I want to put up, as I often do, the unemployment chart for the Obama presidency. If you go back to 2009, February of that year, 8.2 percent, the high point in October of '09 at 10.1 percent. And here we are, January of this year back to 8.3 percent. And how is it that you can say this administration has not led economic recovery?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: It's very simple, David, you didn't include the number of people who've dropped out of the workforce. And when you include the number of people who've quit looking for work because they're convinced the Obama administration's economy's so bad they can't find a job, it jumps up to about 12 percent. When you include the number of people who have part-time jobs who wish they had a full-time job, it's at 16 or 17 percent. I mean, this is an administration which has actually shrunk the workforce fairly dramatically in the last few years. I think it's the lowest male participation rate in the labor force since the late--since the early--the 1940s, right after World War II. So when you take--there's a, there's a number called U6 which is all of these factors, it's still a very dangerous, very dismal situation. And the Congressional Budget Office has warned that they believe unemployment's going to go back up this summer and fall and they think it'll stay high through 2014. And I think the Federal Reserve has a very similar forecast of a weak economy through 2014.

MR. GREGORY: If there is job creation throughout the rest of this year, even if it is not profound, even if it doesn't keep up with population growth, do you think as a Republican it will be difficult to make the case against this president as he's vying for re-election?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, it depends on what the job creation looks like. I mean, if, if you're talking about we get down to 7.9 percent in the fourth year of a--of the longest recession since the Great Depression, you still got a challenge. If it all--it's combined with the highest priced gasoline in American history because of his anti-American energy policies, he's still going to have a challenge. And if we got to that level of recovery because he's borrowing trillions of dollars from our children and grandchildren, he's still going to have a challenge.

The very simple question to ask the American people: Do you think Washington's on the right track or the wrong track? By overwhelming margin, the American people believe that Washington's on the wrong track. And I think that's going to be a big burden for President Obama to carry this fall. His policies have consistently, I think, weakened the country. He has an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would raise the price of gasoline by 25 cents a gallon. There are very few Americans who want to see the price of gasoline raised by government to 25 cents a gallon. Furthermore, you know, he's--he has declared what--it's not just an economic election, you know, he's basically declared war on the Catholic Church, and that's the language of Archbishop Dolan of New York. And I think you're going to see a very severe reaction to the idea of a radical Obama administration...

MR. GREGORY: Well, let's--explain what you're talking about.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...imposing secular rules on religion.

MR. GREGORY: This is for insurance to be provided, including contraception, for employees around the country.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Right.

MR. GREGORY: And--but religious institutions would be exempted. How is this a war against religion...

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: No.

MR. GREGORY: Well, religious institutions, churches and the like, would be exempted, and there are states that have very similar rules to ensure the health and safety of, of women that they get covered in their workplace, whether it be a Catholic hospital or other kind of institution.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, I mean, you, you just managed to precisely repeat the Obama administration's line, which is also the American Civil Liberties Union line. The fact is what you're saying is there cannot be a genuinely Catholic university, there cannot be a genuinely Catholic hospital, that in fact it will have to be subordinated to the rules of a secular government. I mean, I happen to oppose rules that, that have, for example, forced Catholic Adoption Services to be closed because they're only willing to have adoptions for marriages between a man and a woman. There are states that now close that. I think that is a tremendous infringement of religious liberty. And I think you're saying the same thing. You're saying basically, "Oh, you can have the name on it, but you can't actually be a Catholic institution. You can't actually be an evangelical Christian institution. You can't actually be an orthodox Jewish institution because we the secular government are going to impose on you." I think that's--I think this is a very profound moment for Americans to decide...

MR. GREGORY: And you predict a political cost for the president.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...do you really want to have a government impose on them?

MR. GREGORY: Do you predict a political cost for the president because of this?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: What? Very substantial, yes. Because, because every American who cares about religious liberty, and I've been talking, for example, with evangelicals here in Nevada, every American who cares about religious liberty recognizes that from, from, from judges who say you, you can't say a prayer in high school, you can't--the New York City decision recently--you, you can't rent an empty school building on Sunday morning--every time you turn around, secular government is closing in on and shrinking the right of religious liberty in America, and I think there are millions of people who are very disturbed by it.

MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you--back to some of the ideas in your campaign. "Saturday Night Live" had a little bit of fun at your expense last night. Let me show you a clip of it and ask you a more serious question on the other side.

(Videotape, last night, courtesy Broadway video)

Offscreen Voice: The year 2014 is a time of turmoil for America. Comfortably serving his second term, President Barack Obama no longer hides his socialist agenda. From the darkness, a visionary emerges and leads a group of pioneers to pursue a better future in space. He is: Newt Gingrich, moon president!

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: You know, you, you have talked, Mr. Speaker, about keeping focused on big ideas in this campaign and a lunar colony would fit that bill. But you also said on this program back in May that "One of my greatest weaknesses is that part of me is a teacher analyst" because too often you talk like that more than someone who's disciplined to be president of the United States. Is there something that's incongruous about your campaign where you talk about fiscal sanity, you talk about contraction and age of austerity and then you talk about a lunar colony? Do you think this ultimately hurts your seriousness as you move forward in this campaign?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, first of all, David, I don't think you'll ever find me talking about an age of austerity. I don't think that's the right solution. I am a pro-growth Republican, I'm a pro-growth conservative, I think the answer's to grow the economy, not to punish the American people with austerity. Second, that's--you know, I made a speech on the space coast in Florida to serious people who've spent their lifetime trying to help America get into space. Every serious analyst understands that the Chinese are going all out to dominate space, the Russians today have the only man-rated vehicle available to the United States in space. And I didn't propose any additional federal spending, I opposed--I proposed a fundamental reform of NASA to engage the private sector in very bold and very dramatic ventures.

And I think Greta Van Susteren got it right, she interviewed me shortly after. She said, you know--she couldn't imagine President John F. Kennedy being met with the kind of attacks, the kind of ridicule, the, the lack of faith in America that has come up in the last few days. I believe it's possible to unleash the American people, to inspire the private sector, to encourage entrepreneurs and to have a dramatically better space program than we have today. And I think every American should wonder why we've spent billions and billions and billions on NASA and currently have no vehicle to put human beings into space. So I was calling--I think--this, this was not some slip, this was a deliberate effort to start a conversation at a, at a time when the Chinese, the Indians and the Russians are aggressively moving into space and we are bureaucratically mired down in red tape spending billions of dollars without making very much progress. So I'm not for a gigantic federal tax-paid program, I'm for a dramatic reform of the current program.

MR. GREGORY: How personally nasty is it between you and Governor Romney? Have you lost personal like and even respect for him?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: I--look, I think that's basically the--an irrelevant question. Governor Romney's running a campaign that he thinks is right for him. I don't, I don't happen to think it's a very good thing to do. I'm very proud of the fact that the counties I carried in Florida, the vote was up. The counties he carried, the vote was down. In South Carolina we set an all-time record for turnout. I'm going to be running a campaign of big ideas, big solutions. I'm trying to draw people into politics, not carpet-bomb them out of it. We just have a fundamental disagreement about the responsibility of somebody running for president should have to the American people.

MR. GREGORY: And, Mr. Speaker, before I let you go, I was paying attention last night that you're rooting for the Giants today, and I just am shocked by one thing, not your support for their wide-receiving unit or their very strong pass rush, but that you would endorse a team that comes from the capital of media elitism.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, you know, my son-in-law and I have shares of Green Bay stock and we have an obligation, David, to honor the team that beat us, painful though it was. And I know it makes you and your son happy, so on this one I'm with you.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Newt Gingrich. Mr. Speaker, thank you very much.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: And coming up, more on this Super Bowl Sunday. The Giants and Patriots face off on football's largest stage on NBC. We'll have a special Decision 2012 conversation with three political heavy-hitters, the Patriots' home state Governor Deval Patrick, the Giants' hometown Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the governor of the host state, Indiana's Mitch Daniels. We'll talk politics and, of course, a little football, including how the Patriots' record in the big game might be a good political predictor of what's in store in the race for the White House in this election year. And later, our political roundtable on the X's and O's of the campaign. Maddow, Brooks, Becerra and Castellanos after this short break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: Coming up, yeah, we're a little football focused here, the Patriots and the Giants face off. We're going to have a special 2012 conversation. Joining me, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels up next, right after this brief commercial break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: Joining me this Super Bowl Sunday, Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick, and live from Indianapolis, and site of Super Bowl XLVI, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels. Welcome to all of you. Nice to have you here.

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK (D-MA): Good morning.

MR. GREGORY: I want to talk the economy first with everyone, and I want to start with you, Governor Daniels. You gave the response to the president's State of the Union address and you were very pointed about his economic record. Let me play a portion of it.

(Videotape, January 24, 2012)

GOV. MITCH DANIELS (R-IN): The president did not cause the economic and fiscal crisis that continue in America tonight but he was elected on a promise to fix them and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: And yet, as I pointed out with Speaker Gingrich, Governor Daniels, 8.3 percent unemployment, close to where it was in February of 2009, that is a dramatic improvement. Just last month more than 240,000 jobs created. Do you stand by what you said?

GOV. DANIELS: Every word of it, David. You know, in today's parlance the economy is down 30 points, and we just kicked a field goal. I think I'd keep the champagne on ice. I only heard, heard a little bit of the previous interview but just look at the number of Americans, the percentage of Americans working, two-thirds of the jobs lost have not been regained yet. The participation rate is extraordinary low, the under unemployment rate is very high, and, you know, I'm, I'm as glad as anyone to see one good month, but it's way too early for a celebration, and as you know, most of predictions for this year about further growth are, are pretty gloomy.

MR. GREGORY: Well, of course, it's not just one month, Mayor Bloomberg. It is job creation throughout this year under President Obama. And here was a striking statistic that we saw in The New York Times/CBS poll. In terms of the optimism of Americans about the economy, it's up dramatically. Last year, 28 percent thinking that the economy is getting better. You're close to the economy in New York and beyond. How do you see both these numbers and the trajectory in the economy?

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I-NY): Well, the economy is clearly better both in New York and across the country. As Mitch said, it's certainly not running away on the upside and there are lots of storm clouds that we have to worry about. What disturbs me is when you listen to all of the rhetoric in the campaign, nobody's really talking about how they are going to close an $8 trillion deficit over the next 10 years. Where is the revenue going to come from? How do you make it fair when you have to increase revenue, when you have to increase revenue, you cannot cut your ways out of this? And when you cut, what things are you going to cut? And every time I listen to the cut programs, it's, "I'll protect your program if you protect mine." What the president should do is just veto, I think, any extension of the Bush era tax cuts for everybody. We're all in this together. We should all pony up and help close the deficit and then adopt the Simpson-Bowles plan, which was done thoughtfully and it wasn't horse trading. It was trying to strike a balance between the things we need and the things we'd like.

MR. GREGORY: You don't think that the rich should pay the lion's share of this in order to lead on deficit reduction?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Well, if you only raise taxes or--on the rich, you don't get that much money. The only ways you get $4 trillion, which is half of the deficit that we need to close, is if you make sure that the Bush tax cuts go away for everybody. The rich do pay a disproportionate percentage of their share already, but the bottom line is there aren't that many of them. We're all in this together. If you think about it, almost everybody in this country gets some benefit from the federal government, whether it's Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest deductions, lower tax rates to encourage economic growth and capital gains and those kinds of things. And since everybody benefits, I've always thought you don't want to create class warfare, everybody should feel the pain a little bit, proportionately, up to their ability to pay, but everybody's in this together. That's what America is all about.

MR. GREGORY: Governor Patrick, how do you respond to Governor Daniels, to Speaker Gingrich, who says, in fact, the president does not deserve credit, that under him the economy has continued to be incredibly weak, and the evidence, of course, the fact that those jobless numbers don't even capture the fact that people, so many Americans have simply stopped looking and are no longer represented in those jobless numbers?

GOV. PATRICK: Well, first of all, I think sometimes it seems that facts are unwelcome things to, to the speaker and to many Republicans today. I want to align myself with the--with the comments that Mayor Bloomberg made. There is a way if we all act as if we are in this together to reduce the deficit and grow the, the economy and continue the 23 consecutive months of job growth that we have had under the, under the, under the president. And the president aligns himself with those same ideas. There has to be a combination, a balanced approach of increased revenue and also, and also cuts in government spending. But we have to invest in those things that we know grow the economy and make for a better future, in education, in the innovation sectors and life sciences and biotech and IT and financial services and so forth, and in out infrastructure. That's a, that's the strategy we pursued here at home and that's why our unemployment rate is well below the national average and I think below New York and Indiana's, as well.

MR. GREGORY: Governor Daniels, one of the things you hear from the campaign trail, Mitt Romney said it just the other day, is that the recovery should have been so much stronger. You know, it's very difficult to prove something like that, just like it's difficult for the president to prove the economy would've been weaker if not for his particular policies. How could it have been stronger had a Republican been in president, in your judgment? Been in the White House, I should say.

GOV. DANIELS: Well, for one thing, for one thing, national policy wouldn't have been so relentlessly anti-enterprise as it's been. If you'd assembled a team of Nobel economists and said design us a policy to stifle and strangle investments and small business growth and innovation in this economy, you couldn't have done better than what's happened the last three years. The mindless piling on of new regulations, every one of them very expensive, and in the aggregate extraordinarily so, that's all drained away dollars that could've been used to hire someone. New taxes and the threat of more, all the uncertainty that's come with that. What we know is this, David, I don't have--no one can prove what might have happened, but this is the weakest recovery, by far, from a deep recession that we have in--since the records have been kept and I don't think that's an accident.

MR. GREGORY: Mayor Bloomberg, as an independent voice in all of this, is that your judgment as well, that that's a fair criticism?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: I think I agree with most of what Mitch said. I think if you want to have growth, number one, you have to have the financial industry be strong and willing to take risks. And this relentless criticism and investigation of them, whether--regardless of the facts in the past, if we want to have a future, we have to have people have confidence. And what I see again and again is everybody out there dissing any progress we've made and what they're saying is they keep criticizing the president. Just let's put it in football terms. Can you imagine a coach who would put a back-up quarterback if all he did on the sidelines was criticize the starting quarterback? I don't think so. We need the president to succeed whether he's going to be in office for 11 months or four years and 11 months. We have to work together. And this partisan bickering, and there are no heroes here, both sides of the aisle, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they aren't coming together to focus on a real solution. All they're doing is trying to get ready for the next campaign or sadly, four years from the next election.

MR. GREGORY: Well, and of course, we're in the middle of this campaign and here is New York Magazine, Governor Daniels, that pictures all the candidates, the president, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, in the bloodiest campaign. Here you have a Republican nominee in Mitt Romney who talks about not being concerned about the poor, that there's a safety net there, having some difficulty connecting with voters. And then the, the negativity in the campaign between Gingrich and Romney. Do you feel like your party has a nominee that's worthy of the challenges that this country faces?

GOV. DANIELS: I believe we will, but I, I agree with those and I side with those who yearn for a more positive campaign. I think the dynamic, the constant debating and so forth, this process that somehow we've developed here, militates a little bit against that. But every chance I get, I call for what the, what the mayor just did. In order to earn our way back to leadership, it's not enough to point out failures that are visible to anyone, we have to offer a constructive program that promises to restore upward mobility in this country. And I, I believe and I certainly hope that our eventual nominee, once freed from this rather dismal primary process, will present that kind of affirmative message to the country.

MR. GREGORY: As you look at Nevada last night, do you believe that Governor Romney is the inevitable nominee of your party?

GOV. DANIELS: You're asking the wrong person. My, my prognostications about politics are even weaker than they are about football. And, and I've been surprised on, on a weekly basis by what's happened already and I've finally learned to keep my mouth shut.

MR. GREGORY: Governor, Governor Patrick, as you look at the negativity in this campaign, the president getting into it by making not so subtle jabs at Governor Romney, do you think that, that the nature of the primary fight between Gingrich and Romney will weaken the eventual nominee for President Obama?

GOV. PATRICK: Well, I, I agree with Mitch, it's been a pretty dismal primary season, and at a time when Americans need to turn to each other, rather than on each other. We do need to see ourselves as in this together and it worries me that so much of the national Republican rhetoric has been about elevating division itself to the top of the--of their political agenda. We've got a lot of work here to do. A lot of progress that has to be acknowledged, that's a fact, 3.7 million private sector jobs in the last few years is a fact and a positive fact. But when we see the people for whom the recovery has not yet proven itself, has not yet reached them, we have to see that not as a political opening, but as unfinished business and we have to come together to get that business done and I think we've got the right president to do just that.

MR. GREGORY: There's a lot of football tie-ins going on this week, including on some pretty serious issues. Mayor Bloomberg, you and Mayor Menino of Boston have come together for this ad. Let me show it.

(Videotape)

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Giants.

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO (D-MA): Patriots.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Eli.

MAYOR MENINO: Brady.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: We don't agree on much.

MAYOR MENINO: For example, the Red Sox.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Yankees.

MAYOR MENINO: Beans.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Bagels.

MAYOR MENINO: But we both support the Second Amendment.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: And believe America must do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. You know, over 600 mayors across the country agree on common sense reforms that would save lives.

MAYOR MENINO: Add your voice.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Go to mayorsagainstillegalguns.org.

MAYOR MENINO: It's a patriotic thing to do.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: You can make a giant difference in our country.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Mayor, it seems like the national discussion about guns in this country has been overtaken by the politics of indifference, frankly, on this, and neither party really wants to wade in to decide with the country sort of split on this. What's going to change that?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Well, you'd think that if a congresswoman got shot in the head, that would've changed Congress' views. I can tell you how to change it, just get Congress to come with me to the hospital when I've got to tell somebody that their son or daughter, their spouse, their parent is not going to come home ever again. This, this week, sadly, even though the murder rate in New York is now so much lower than almost every big city, we still had a cop shot last week with a gun that somebody had, even though the federal laws prohibited that person from having a gun. You know, the federal laws say you can't get a gun if you have a drug problem, psychiatric problem, criminal record or a minor and yet Congress doesn't give monies to make sure that we can have a background check. They have too many loopholes, the background database isn't up to date, private sector sales of guns is something like 40 percent and they don't do background checks. I don't know who has to get killed for people to stop saying, "Wait a second"--start saying, "Wait a second, this is enough." We've had 400,000 Americans killed since RFK and Martin Luther King Jr. were both assassinated back in '68. That is more Americans that have died on the streets from illegal guns since then in America than Americans that were killed in World War II. Enough is enough.

MR. GREGORY: Mayor Bloomberg, there's also been a move afoot in terms of ads that have tied into the Super Bowl by veterans groups representing Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans, U.S. veterans, of course, who would like to see a parade in New York City to welcome home veterans from the Iraq War, particularly when there would be if the Giants win a parade for them. Do you oppose that?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No. I think it would be great, but the Pentagon has asked us to postpone any parade as long as we still have our soldiers in Iraq getting shot at and sadly killed. I think I'll leave it up to the military experts and the Pentagon to decide when they think it's appropriate and then New York will give them a parade like we've never done before...

MR. GREGORY: But...

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: ...to say thank you for everything they've done.

MR. GREGORY: But does it make sense, we can, we can deploy to two different wars at the same time and fund two different wars, but we can't have a parade for two different sets of veterans?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: Well, you know, I think the military's very sensitive. They're the ones that are out there. They're the ones that have been in combat themselves. I'll defer to the leadership.

MR. GREGORY: Finally, Governor Daniels, let's talk football. Here are the stats. When you talk about politics and football and they are quite revealing, 2008, Giants beat the Patriots, President Obama wins. But if you go back to 2004, it's the Patriots who beat the Panthers and that meant that Governor Bush, Republican--President Bush at that point, wins re-election. Is the outcome today the indicator for the fall?

GOV. DANIELS: Undoubtedly. I think the evidence is overwhelming here. And so I plan to get a big bet down on the election as soon as the, as soon as the gun goes off.

MR. GREGORY: So if the Giants win, the president wins re-election? Do you buy that, Governor Patrick?

GOV. PATRICK: The president wins and the Patriots win. That's what I say.

MR. GREGORY: Oh. All right. And one more, hey, Governor Daniels, Peyton Manning, is he gone from Indy?

GOV. DANIELS: We sure hope not. I just can't imagine this town or this team without him and I just believe he's going to heal and we'll have 18 to--not only to cheer for, but what America should know is he--this guy is as great a citizen as he is a quarterback and I cannot tell you--in fact, most people will never know all the things he's done for this state. I, I, for one, fervently hope that we'll have him around for a good while.

MR. GREGORY: All right. We'll leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you all very much. Enjoy the game today.

GOV. PATRICK: Thank you. Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: Coming up, decision 2012 and the politics of the economy. Mitt Romney rolls to victory in Nevada promising to bring his business experience to a failing economy, but will positive jobs numbers boost President Obama's standing and force Romney to rethink his strategy going forward? We're going to ask our political roundtable here, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, David Brooks of The New York Times, California Congressman Xavier Becerra, and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY: And we're back with our political roundtable. Joining me, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," the aforementioned Rachel Maddow, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, California Congressman Xavier Becerra.

Welcome to all of you.

Rachel, you're, you're satisfied we've done enough about the Super Bowl so far?

MS. RACHEL MADDOW: I'm not sure that everybody's totally aware that there is a football game.

MR. GREGORY: That we're--there is a game. And it happens to be on NBC.

MS. MADDOW: It's apparently this afternoon.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

MS. MADDOW: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: I'm going to only mention it 20, 30 more times.

MR. ALEX CASTELLANOS: Sorry we took our jerseys off.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, exactly. We had to do that for the roundtable. OK, here we are, here's Nevada last night. We look at the results, Romney going away at 48 percent. I don't think this is completely final yet, we've only got 71 percent reporting, but obviously a big night for Governor Romney. Gingrich at 23 percent and Paul--here's the delegate count, David Brooks, Romney at 83, Gingrich at 28, the magic number, of course, is 1144. Where are we here after Nevada?

MR. DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. The big news, which you identify at the top of the show, is conservatives did so well for Romney. And to me, one of the things that's happened over the past two weeks is Gingrich talked about it, this issue with the Catholic hospitals and the Catholic service providers. It's not been a big story in the media and I think it's because we're too secular, but it's out in pulpits. In Catholic and Protestant pulpits across America it's a huge issue, the idea, the perception that the president is assaulting religious freedom. And what's happened, it's cemented the evangelicals not with Gingrich but it's the sense "We have to beat this guy, Obama, OK, Romney's good enough."

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. BROOKS: So I think it's, it's significantly healed any wounds that existed between Romney and the evangelicals and you saw that in Nevada.

MR. GREGORY: You see that? Yeah, go ahead, Rachel. You see that?

MS. MADDOW: I was just going to say, you know, 80 percent of people--roughly 80 percent of people say that insurance--anybody providing health insurance should be required to cover contraception, and so there is a way that you can try to make this into a religious freedom issue, but the--all of the Republican field has gone very, very far right, specifically on the issue of contraception and they get a great response for it from the Republican primary audience. But campaigning against the availability of birth control in America is going to run into a 21st century ceiling.

MR. CASTELLANOS: You can, you can try to make this a religious issue, the president of the United States, the administration, has said that even if you're a Catholic hospital or a Catholic university you can't live your beliefs. One of the things we're seeing that as government expands into every sector of society, it crowds out, you know, private life. Just because government gets into something, all of a sudden you lose your freedom of religion, I think it's, it's a, it's a--it is a for real issue, it's going to cut...

MR. GREGORY: But does that fairly represent, does that fairly represent the White House view on this?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA (D-CA): No. It doesn't represent the Catholic view either. I'm a, I'm a Catholic. I, I think the Constitution got it right, protect religious liberty. But if my church wants to start being an insurance company, if my church wants to be an Internet company, it doesn't have the same religious freedoms to discriminate against women, not letting them become priests, and it shouldn't have the same rights as it has as a church to do business. So if it wants to be in the business of providing health insurance, it should, it should do what every other health insurer must do under our laws.

MR. CASTELLANOS: But isn't...

MR. BROOKS: But--so...

MR. CASTELLANOS: ...isn't it voluntary...

MR. BROOKS: That's not...

MR. CASTELLANOS: ...isn't it voluntary that you go to a Catholic university, isn't it voluntary that you choose a Catholic hospital?

REP. BECERRA: So you're turning--Alex, you're turning all these American...

MR. BROOKS: We have, we have--no, listen...

MR. CASTELLANOS: No, listen, I've had so many people--excuse me...

REP. BECERRA: ...you're turning all these American workers that have to leave the Catholic...

MR. CASTELLANOS: ...excuse me, Congressman--no, I'm not. What I was going to try to tell you...

REP. BECERRA: But if it's voluntary...

MR. CASTELLANOS: ...is that there are so many people--you know what, I agree, women should have the right to contraception, but there's choice in this country about how you live and what you believe, and we shouldn't limit religious liberty to achieve that.

MR. GREGORY: But is, but is there a distinction between paying for something and making it available?

MR. BROOKS: Yeah. But in the poorest neighborhoods in this country the Catholic service providers are doing incredible work and they're doing it out of a sense of religious devotion. And if the government tells them you can't do it and, and--in...

REP. BECERRA: They continue to do that.

MR. BROOKS: But you can't--what, what the government is telling them--the, the Obama administration had a perfectly available option to say, "OK, you're not going to provide contraception, but do it as other states like Hawaii do it, just tell people where to go. That way we square it with, with what you want to do, with your convictions, and we're realistic." But the government in, I think, in an act of bureaucratic greed said, "It's our way or the highway."

MS. MADDOW: The, the, the idea that, that, that the Catholic Church is being forced to do something that as a church it does not want to do is a misnomer. The initial exception in here is that the Catholic Church that--somebody that is providing the service of being a church, that's operating from the church, they're already exempt from this. The question is, as the congressman says, when you want to become a health insurance provider you must follow the rules of providing health insurance. And in this country, that means that you have to cover contraception, and 80 percent of Americans agree with that.

MR. CASTELLANOS: This is--this...

MS. MADDOW: This fits into--you guys want to make this only about religion, but listen, Mitt Romney is campaigning...

MR. CASTELLANOS: No, it is--no, the administration made this only about religion.

MS. MADDOW: ...Mitt Romney is campaigning saying that he would like to end--he...

MR. CASTELLANOS: Ask the bishops.

MS. MADDOW: ...he would like to end all family planning support at the federal level. He would like to eliminate federal--Title 10. Rick Santorum says that he would like states to be able to make contraception illegal. You can try to make this an issue of, oh, Democrats hate religion, but the fact is churches were exempt from this from the beginning, this is about providing health insurance. And the Republican Party is...

MR. GREGORY: Let me...

MS. MADDOW: ...waging war on contraception at this point in a way that the--where the--and that's where the discussion is going.

MR. GREGORY: Alex, I want to, I want to move this back, I mean this is a fascinating debate and it's not going to go away, but I also want to talk about sort of the state of the campaign. And David initially brought this up as a way of where Romney might be attracting more conservative support. How has he done this week, you know, having to deal with the fact that he talked about not worrying about the poor too much because there's a social safety net. And then he offered this in, in the wake of these job numbers that we've talked about here, 8.3 percent unemployment. This is what he said:

(Videotape, Friday)

FRM. GOV. ROMNEY: This recovery has been slower than it should have been. Will it get better? I think it'll get better. But this president has not helped the process, he's hurt it.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Is he going to be able to stick with that rationale? Is he going to basically say "Vote for me because I could have made the recovery even stronger than the current president did"?

MR. CASTELLANOS: I, I think the question still is what recovery? There seems to be one in Washington, there seems to be the beginnings of one in the White House, but when we all look at these unemployment numbers, it--we can understand why America doesn't feel like it's on the right track. You know, if I told you, Rachel, today that, "Hey, I've got great news, the rate of sick people, really old sick people in this country is going down," we'd all sit here and say, oh, that's wonderful. And if I then explained to you, "Yes, it's because a million of them died last month," we'd say that's not great. But that's what's happening in unemployment.

MR. BROOKS: That--yeah.

MR. CASTELLANOS: The unemployment rate's going down, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 1.2 million people left the workforce.

MR. BROOKS: I think that's completely the wrong...

MR. GREGORY: David, go ahead.

MR. BROOKS: I think that's the wrong strategy for Republicans. You can't wage this on a cyclical--the cyclical ups and downs of the economy because it might get better, God willing it will get better. So I, I--if I were the Republicans I'd say cyclical we're doing a little better, we've got these huge structural problems, we've got the debt, we've got wage stagnation, we've got families falling apart and highlight the deep structural problems. The message for Romney out of these jobs numbers is, I can't cruise quoting "God Bless America," whatever song he quotes. I've got to actually have some big policies, and he's cruising on a bad economy, but that may go away, hopefully.

MR. GREGORY: Rachel, your point?

MS. MADDOW: I was just going to say, if, if you told me that it was 8.3 percent unemployment, I'd say, what was it before; and if you told me it was 10, I would say, good, things are going in a better direction. The internal numbers are better, the manufacturing numbers are better, healthcare numbers are better...

MR. CASTELLANOS: The 1.2 is better?

MS. MADDOW: ...professional services numbers are better. It's not just people dying.

MR. CASTELLANOS: Is the 1.2 is better?

MS. MADDOW: Listen, we've gone from 10 percent unemployment to 8.3 percent unemployment.

MR. CASTELLANOS: Except for that, except for the 1.2 million people.

MS. MADDOW: Eight-point-three percent unemployment is still bad, but I prefer this to what it was before. We're going in the right direction.

MR. GREGORY: Well, but the reality, Congressman...

MR. CASTELLANOS: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: ...we, we, we--there's a lot of people I talk to in business who say you can't obsess about jobs. You can't just look at the number of jobs, you have to look at overall economic growth. That's the engine of our economy. That has still been anemic. And as it translates politically, you talk about cruising, but this is the swing state matchup for 2012, and this is where Romney has an advantage over President Obama. There's a lot of Americans who look at these numbers and are hurting. Romney with a slight edge over Obama in the swing states as you look at a 2012 matchup. Congressman?

REP. BECERRA: David, I think the issue is will the Republicans try to run on pessimism. If that's what they're going to do, it's going to be tough, I believe, for them to win because we've never been a people of pessimism. And the president can say, you're right, we lost jobs, we lost a ton of jobs. But even Superman needed some track to stop a train. You got to understand that for the first 12 months of his presidency, just as the last 12 months of Bush's presidency, we lost jobs. For the last 23 months in a row, we gained jobs. And that's what you have to talk about is the optimism. If Mitt Romney and the, and the Republicans want to run on pessimism, let them do so.

MR. CASTELLANOS: And I have--you know, I've been fairly pessimistic, frankly, about Republican chances of winning this election. I thought of Obama having an advantage for a lot of reasons. People think he's a decent man. People think that we've gone to a better place in racial relations, and, you know, even the economy has flattened out. But this campaign for the first time is making me think Republicans actually have a better shot than I thought, and the reason is Republicans are making the case for growth out there and Democrats are making the case that the biggest problem of the economy is not growth it's maldistribution of wealth.

REP. BECERRA: That's...(unintelligible).

MR. CASTELLANOS: Obama and the Democrats are talking about Mitt Romney's paycheck. Mitt Romney and the Republicans are talking about people's paychecks. I've been in these campaigns when we start talking about this guy's money, that guy's money and voters...

REP. BECERRA: Alex, I hope they'll tell the Republicans in Congress to pass the payroll tax cut that they opposed for so long.

MR. CASTELLANOS: ...it's the wrong race to run.

REP. BECERRA: If they're talking about Americans' paycheck, then the biggest way to help Americans' paycheck, even millionaires, is to help us pass that payroll tax cut for the rest of the year.

MR. CASTELLANOS: And there isn't a strategy for growth coming out of the Democrats or the White House right now.

MR. GREGORY: What is the Republican growth strategy, David? I mean, what is it they say would have led to a stronger recovery had a Republican been there?

MR. BROOKS: Well, there are big policies there. There is a big fundamental tax reform, which, believe me, the president doesn't want to do for some reason I do not understand. There's a big entitlement approach we call Rivlin-Domenici, which is the Romney approach, give people different options. Those are big policies. And what--I think the advantage the Republicans have, and I can go plus or minus on whether they're going to win this thing, is they do have big policies. The president, for whatever reason, has decided to coast on reasonably small policies. This week a big announcement from the White House, digitalized textbooks. Big debt, big jobs problem, pro--problems, they're going with digitalized textbooks?

MR. GREGORY: Well, we're...

MS. MADDOW: But let me just...

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

MS. MADDOW: In terms of, in terms of a growth strategy, though, I mean, voucherizing Medicare, turning, getting rid of the, the guarantee that Americans have come to expect when they get older that their Medicare will be there for them is not a way to deal with economic growth. There's a problem right now.

MR. CASTELLANOS: But...(unintelligible)...is not a growth strategy.

MS. MADDOW: And the important thing, the, well, the important thing right now from the Democratic side is they're making the case, and I have hoped as a liberal that they would, that policy matters. That it does matter if you pass the payroll tax extension. It does matter if you have unemployment benefits because if people run out of unemployment benefits, it's not a charity issue, it's that they become a much more, a much bigger drag on the economy.

MR. CASTELLANOS: You're beginning...

MS. MADDOW: Policy matters, infrastructure spending matters.

MR. CASTELLANOS: But...

MS. MADDOW: That stuff matters and that's the stuff that the president talked about in the State of the Union.

MR. CASTELLANOS: That's not...

MR. BROOKS: (Unintelligible)...won't follow through on his plan.

MR. CASTELLANOS: Wait...

MR. GREGORY: OK. Hold on. Hold on.

MR. BROOKS: Which he's talked about, which is to simplify the tax code. That is a growth strategy and he has dropped the ball on that.

REP. BECERRA: But, David, he, he did make those proposals. He proposed the Americans Jobs Act, which was more than just a payroll, a payroll tax cut for $160 million workers. He did propose a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan, which is more than what Bowles-Simpson, which I sat on, proposed. So he has. The problem is, of course, the Republicans have obstructed votes on those proposals all year.

MR. GREGORY: Can I ask one question? I've got about 30--I'm sorry to end this on process, but I do want to, having Speaker Gingrich on. Alex, is there a path for Gingrich, as he likes to say? Is there something, some rationale, something realistic that he can cling to at this point?

MR. CASTELLANOS: On the moon, yes, but here, no. He's disqualified himself, I think, from, from, and he hasn't demonstrated the stability or the leadership potential. He's all over the map. This--Romney is beginning to pick up momentum. He won every single demographic group except maybe divorce lawyers and narcissists, I think, in Nevada.

MR. GREGORY: All right, on that note, I'm going to end it there. Thank you all very much moch--much, excuse me.

REP. BECERRA: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: A few programming notes here before we go. You can watch this week's Press Pass conversation with Newt Gingrich supporter, former Congressman J.C. Watts, on our blog, presspass.msnbc.com. He also talks a little football, too, Rachel. And this afternoon, Matt Lauer will sit down with President Obama for a live exclusive interview for a special edition of "Today" during NBC's pregame show. And of course, NBC Sports coverage of Super Bowl XLVI starts today at noon Eastern with kickoff at 6:30 Eastern here on NBC.

What a great day. I'm going to the hockey game, too, even before football. I mean, this is just fantastic.

That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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