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Video: Santorum discusses presidential bid; Lew and roundtable weigh in on economy

  1. Transcript of: Santorum discusses presidential bid; Lew and roundtable weigh in on economy

    MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the culture war over contraception and the church that sparked a political firestorm.

    FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): It's not about contraception . It's about economic liberty , it's about freedom of speech , it's about freedom of religion , it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!

    MR. GREGORY: And the White House compromise .

    PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women .

    MR. GREGORY: Is the fight over or new fuel for the election year debate about health care and the role of government in our lives? Here this morning the president's new chief of staff, Jack Lew , and later live from the campaign trail, the Republican with the hot hand in the hunt for the GOP nomination, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum on social issues, energizing conservatives , and his path to the nomination. Finally, our political roundtable this morning on Decision 2012 . Can Mitt Romney regain front- runner status.

    FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): I was a severely conservative Republican governor.

    MR. GREGORY: And competing views about President Obama . How will voters size him up as a leader vying for four more years? With us, host of MSNBC 's " Morning Joe ," Joe Scarborough ; Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan ; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne ; and former aide to President Obama who's now running a pro- Obama super PAC , Bill Burton .

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

    MR. GREGORY: And good morning. A one-two punch for Mitt Romney yesterday in his fight for the Republican nomination. In Maine he eked out a narrow victory in that state 's nonbinding caucuses. He got 39 percent; second place finisher was Ron Paul at 36 percent. And here in Washington the former Massachusetts governor won the support of conservative activists who had gathered for an annual event called CPAC , a gathering of conservatives . Results in their straw poll had Romney edging out Santorum 38 to 31 percent. It's getting a lot of traction this morning. We're going to talk to Rick Santorum live from the campaign trail in California in just a couple of minutes. But first, the man at the center of two high-profile Washington battles, the debate over providing birth control coverage at religious institutions and the president's annual budget plan, which will be delivered to Congress tomorrow morning . With us, the president's new chief of staff, formerly his budget director, Jack Lew . Mr. Lew , welcome back to MEET THE PRESS .

    MR. JACK LEW: Good to be with you , again, David .

    MR. GREGORY: You're a veteran of lots of different kinds of battles in Washington , mostly about money , and here, religious freedom , social issues is the issue that's really taken the city by storm because of this birth control decision . Within the White House there were warnings this would be a political firestorm, this would be controversial. How did the White House botch this to the point where the president had to backtrack in such a high-profile way?

    MR. LEW: You know, David , from the very beginning the president had two very important principles that had to be reconciled. One principle is that every woman should have the right to all forms of preventive health care , including contraception . The other is that we need to respect the religious liberties which are the cornerstone of American life . When the plan was announced at the end of January, it was clear that there was going to be a yearlong period for transition. With the ensuing controversy that was speeded up. The president gave a clear signal we don't want a year of debate on this. Get this resolved.

    MR. GREGORY: But you knew this going in. You knew you had a year period , but within the White House the vice president, your predecessor Bill Daly , both Catholics , they said, "Look, if you do this you're going to end up taking on the Catholic Church . You're going to take on a huge social issue." Why did the White House do this with its eyes wide open ?

    MR. LEW: To be clear, what the president announced Friday was what was envisioned all along. It was coming to a way to reconcile these two values. We are now in a place where we can say with certainty that women are going to have the right to health care and we can say that religious institutions, including Catholic hospitals and universities, won't have to pay for or do the administrative work to provide benefits that they find objectionable. But the women will get those benefits through the insurance companies that provide for their health care . It's a good solution, it's a solution that brings together these two very important values and there are others who don't want to reconcile these values. There are some who just oppose that women should have the right to contraception . We don't agree with that. This is a plan that's a good plan, that's respectful of religious differences, respectful of a woman's right to have access to all forms of preventive health care and I hope that we can now move on from here.

    MR. GREGORY: But was this political malpractice in an election year?

    MR. LEW: I think that the, the issue of providing women all forms of preventative health care has been and remains very important. The, the importance of protecting religious liberties in this country has been important to the president and will always be. I think we've resolved this issue in a way where we can now go forward .

    MR. GREGORY: But you say it's resolved. Here are some of the headlines this morning that seem to belie that description. " Bishops Reject White House 's New Plan on Contraception ," in The New York Times . The Washington Post , "U.S. Bishops Blast Obama 's Contraception Compromise ." From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops they issued a statement on Friday that indicate that resolution is not at hand. "[W]e note that [the] proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for" HHAs -- " HHS " rather, "to rescind this mandate."

    MR. LEW: Yeah, David , on Friday we had a broad range of groups endorse where the president's policy is. We had the Catholic Health Association , which understands health care extremely well and is true to Catholic beliefs. We had the Catholic Charities , we had Planned Parenthood . There's a broad consensus that this is the right approach. That doesn't mean that everyone agrees with it.

    MR. GREGORY: So you can move forward without the church 's hierarchy being on board.

    MR. LEW: I think that we, you know, the fact that the Catholic Health Association , Catholic Charities support what the president announced on Friday reflects the fact that we hit that important balance between providing a woman the guarantee that she has access to the kinds of preventive health care that she needs and that we've respected the religious liberty of the institutions.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, let's talk about religious liberty . This is a social issue, this is now a hot issue in the presidential campaign . Rick Santorum , who you'll hear from in just a couple of minutes, talked about this with great passion on the campaign trail a couple of days ago and here's what he said in part.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: This is the kind of coercion that we can expect. It's not about contraception , it's about economic liberty , it's about freedom of speech , it's about freedom of religion , it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!

    MR. GREGORY: So can you understand the view that some conservatives have which is beyond, you know, religious liberty , that this is what government does and this is what happens when government makes healthcare decisions for you. It's a role of government issue that's an issue that's going to live beyond this compromise .

    MR. LEW: You know, David , I think that there are a lot of conservatives that don't think that we should guarantee that Americans have access to health insurance . There are a lot of people, maybe from that comment, the senator, who don't believe that women should have a right to contraception . We believe that the Affordable Care Act is meeting an important need because we had tens of millions of Americans who did not have access to health insurance who will. We believe women have a right to all forms of preventive health. We think we've done it in a way that's a proper balance.

    MR. GREGORY: Is this an issue that the president will campaign on?

    MR. LEW: I think the Affordable Care Act is something that's a big accomplishment and he will be campaigning on that. I think that the right of women to all forms of preventative health care is an important part of it.

    MR. GREGORY: Will he veto any effort in Congress to abridge this mandate?

    MR. LEW: I think that it would be a mistake for this to go forward in that way because the issue's been addressed. I think that...

    MR. GREGORY: Would he veto any effort by congressional Republicans to abridge it, to change the mandate?

    MR. LEW: I, I, I think the president's been clear that he is going to be insistent that we implement the Affordable Care Act . I spent a lot of last year making sure that we had the resources to implement the Affordable Care Act . But we're, we're...

    MR. GREGORY: So he would veto it? He'd veto any effort to change this?

    MR. LEW: ...we are going to proceed to implement the Affordable Care Act .

    MR. GREGORY: He'd veto an effort to change it.

    MR. LEW: We're going to implement the Affordable Care Act .

    MR. GREGORY: Let's move on to the economy . I think a lot of people wonder what kind of recovery are we in. It feels like it's anemic and yet the jobs picture seems to be improving. I was looking at the stock market the other day as the Dow climbs closer and closer to 13,000, which is certainly important for a lot of investors and a sign of better times . What's a realistic unemployment or jobless number , do you think, by November of this year?

    MR. LEW: You know, David , the unemployment situation's improved over the last few months. And it's actually improved so much so that it's better than we and all the economic forecasters thought it would be back in November. That's good news. The American people should be pleased that we now have a recovery that's taken root. The job growth is across all the sectors of the economy . It's not the result of people leaving the workforce, it's the result of private sector job creation . This is good. The thing that we have to be careful about is to make sure that Washington doesn't get in the way. Last year we saw an awful lot of instances where Washington 's dysfunction became part of the uncertainty and the problem in the economy . Congress has a challenge from now until the end of February to extend the payroll tax cut so that we continue to get that boost that the economy needs. I hope Congress can do the job, get it done, and that we can start to keep the wind at our backs instead of becoming part of the problem, which was what happened last year.

    MR. GREGORY: What do you think is a realistic unemployment rate ?

    MR. LEW: You know, I, I think that, that we are, we are certainly seeing unemployment come down. I'm always reluctant to, to do spot estimates of a tenth of a point here or there. We may see months that go up and down, but we're heading in the right direction. We're seeing unemployment come down in the low eights and we certainly hope it gets lower than that.

    MR. GREGORY: So the leadership deficit in Washington has had an impact on what business does in America and certainly our economic outlook. Here's a stat that a lot of people may not know, but it's pretty striking. The number of days since Senate Democrats passed a budget is 1,019. Can you just explain as a former budget director, how do you fund the government when there's no budget ?

    MR. LEW: Well, you know, one of the things about the United States Senate that I think the American people have realized is that it takes 60, not 50 votes to pass something. And there has been Republican opposition to anything that Senate Democrats have tried to do. So it, it is a challenge in the United States Senate to pass legislation when there's not that willingness to work together. Congress didn't do a great job last year. It, it, it drove right to the edge of a cliff on occasion after occasion. I actually think it's unfair to blame the United States Senate for that. A lot of that was because of the extreme, you know, conservative approach taken by House Republicans.

    MR. GREGORY: Your party controls the Senate , does it not?

    MR. LEW: Yeah, but it -- the positions that ended up tying the Congress in knots came out of the House . It came out of the tea party wing in the House .

    MR. GREGORY: But can you just explain to Americans how it is that the government funds itself when there's no budget ?

    MR. LEW: So, the, the, the Congress has to appropriate money to run the government on an annual basis and actually last year one of the things that was part of the budget agreement was agreeing to the overall levels of funding for two years. So Congress will be able to continue to do its business. It would be better to do it in the context of an overall budget . The president tomorrow will be presenting a budget that does $4 trillion of deficit reduction over 10 years. It does it in a way that builds an economy in America that can last. It does it by developing manufacturing, the skills that we need in this country , energy independence and calling for shared American values where everybody, you know, has a fair shot, does their fair share and plays by the same rules. That's what we hope Congress will do and we're going to work towards that end.

    MR. GREGORY: It's probably fair to be cynical about whether people should pay too much attention to a budget outline when budgets don't get passed in Washington for 1,000 days, but I do want to ask you about the president's blueprint because it's seen in some ways as an election year document. This is how The New York Times described it in part and I want to have you react to this. "' President Obama pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term,' said Stephen Miller , he's a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee . 'Their optimistic projection is that next year's deficit will be almost a trillion dollars -- after four straight trillion- dollar deficits. So the White House is bragging about a broken promise?' But deficit reduction may be beside the point. Mr. Obama appears to be laying out a campaign document that pits jobs programs paid for with tax increases on the rich against the deep spending cuts that will be the heart of the Republican Party 's economic program, rebuilding vs. austerity." I want to ask you this, I asked New Gingrich this last week, why shouldn't austerity be a centerpiece of what the United States government is about these days given how high the budget deficit is and how much economic uncertainty that fiscal insanity contributes?

    MR. LEW: You know, David , I think that there's pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today. We need to be on a path where over the next several years we bring our deficit under control . Right now we have a recovery that's taking root and if we were to put in austerity measures right now, it would take the economy in the wrong way. So The New York Times , for example, has very much argued that 2012 , 2013 is not the time for austerity.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    MR. LEW: The challenge is how do you do two things at the same time. How do you put money forward for things like the payroll tax holiday, for things like getting a jump-start on infrastructure, for building schools, and make the decisions for long-term deficit reduction. The president's proposed a plan that would do that. He was willing over the course of last year to negotiate a bipartisan agreement that would do it.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. But cutting the deficit should not be the number one priority.

    MR. LEW: We've seen, we've seen from, we've seen from Republicans in -- particularly Republicans in the House , but with Republicans generally, that they don't want to be part of any plan that raises taxes at all. The president's budget has $1 of revenue for every $2 1/2 of spending cuts. This can be done, but it can only be done when we work together.

    MR. GREGORY: But just to understand you, cutting the budget should not be the number one priority when you've got a slow economic recovery. That's your message.

    MR. LEW: I think that...

    MR. GREGORY: Cutting the deficit , I should say.

    MR. LEW: I think that for, for the next short period of time...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    MR. LEW: ...our number one priority is Congress needs to do its work and extend the payroll tax cut. They have two, two weeks now to do the important business that they don't get in the way of our economic recovery. Congress should take seriously long-term deficit reduction. The president takes seriously long-term deficit reduction. That's why he's putting out a plan that has serious long- term deficit reduction. I hope that we can get to work on that this year, but it's not because it should take effect right now.

    MR. GREGORY: Jack Lew , thank you very much .

    MR. LEW: Good to be with you , David .

    MR. GREGORY: Coming up next here, he came in a strong second in a straw poll among prominent conservative activists this weekend here in Washington , scored a string of primary victories this week. But can Rick Santorum go the distance against Mitt Romney 's money and political machine ? He's going to join me live from the campaign trail next. Later, our political roundtable, Bill Burton , head of a super PAC supporting President Obama along with MSNBC 's Joe Scarborough , The Wall Street Journal 's Peggy Noonan , and The Washington Post 's E.J. Dionne . After this.

    MR. GREGORY: Coming up, does Rick Santorum have a realistic chance to win the Republican nomination? He'll join me next to talk about it after this brief commercial break .

    MR. GREGORY: Joining me live this morning from California , former two-term senator from Pennsylvania , Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum . Senator Santorum , good to have you back on the program.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Thank you, David , it's good to be on.

    MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about this birth control fight and the direct question . You just heard the White House chief of staff . Is this a debate that you want to have in the course of the campaign as he would frame it, to deny women access to birth control in this country ?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: No one's denying them access to birth control . This is, this is outrageous. I mean, the, the bottom line is that you have the federal government now saying we're going to give you a right and then saying, by the way, we're going to tell you how to exercise that right. We're going to control you, a religious , a church -affiliated group as to, you know, what you provide to your employee. And if you don't like it, tough, because our rights, our right to tell you what to do trumps your deeply held convictions about what your dollars should be spent for. And the idea that you can have the insurance company , and by the way, many and -- of -- a large number of Catholic social service providers are self-insured, and so the self-insured is the insurance company , they're going to be forced to still provide. So there's no compromise here. They're forcing religious organizations , either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, morally, you know, wrong thing. And this is not what the government should be doing. And this is not just Rick Santorum talking. You've got a lot of Democrats , you've got a lot of liberals who are, who are just aghast that this president's going to take on a fight of saying government will force you to do things that are against your conscience.

    MR. GREGORY: Do you think this is a public health issue for women ? I've heard you say before you think contraception is dangerous.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I -- what I've talked about it with respect is my Catholic faith , which, you know, I, I agree with the Catholic Church on the issue of contraception . But as you know, I mean, I -- that's, that's a different position than I have with respect to public policy . You know, public policy , women should have access to contraception . I have no problem with that at all. The question is whether some religious organization should be forced to pay for something that they believe is a moral wrong, and the issue is -- the answer to that is no. And under the Obama administration policy they are continuing to be forced to do so.

    MR. GREGORY: You talk about this in broader terms, as I brought up with Mr. Lew , the idea that a lot of conservatives have that this is beyond the religious freedom issue but this is what happens when government makes healthcare decisions . That's your argument and the argument of others. You've talked about this in terms of why you believe the president is dangerous, that re-electing the, the president would unmask some sort of hidden plan that he has for the second term. This is what you said recently on Fox News .

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: I suspect that it will be backed down here rather shortly, but it's a lesson learned of what this president would do if he's got another term and he doesn't have to worry about re- election .

    MR. GREGORY: What is that secret plan that you're, you're so worried about? And is that not just hyperbole and demagoguery?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: It's not secret at all. I mean, the president went out and, and promoted, at the time he was promoting Obamacare , a program of cap and trade where he wants to control and literally control people's availability to, to use energy in this country and, and charge you for that energy in a, in a way that, again, that the government decides the allocation of these resources. The president's agenda is very, very clear. He believes, as, as someone who's, who's smarter than everybody else , that they should make decisions for you and that whether it's health care , whether it's Dodd-Frank and having this consumer protection board that's going to go out and tell people what kind of loans they're going to get, who's going to qualify, who's not, this is government taking over choices from people. Even if you look at the Medicare system, which we may be talking about. I mean, the idea that, you know, Ron Wyden and, and Paul Ryan come together and say, look, we're going to give Medicare recipients choices as to what is best for them. And President Obama says, oh, you give people choices, that's throwing people off a cliff. We need to make those decisions for them. We're the ones who should decide what kind of health care everybody should have. It is a top down, I -- that government knows best attitude, and it's, and it's reaching more and more places in people's lives.

    MR. GREGORY: I want to stay on some of the social issues that have come, I think, to define your campaign , that certainly give a lot of energy to your campaign and to your supporters. Let me ask you about gay marriage, an issue you've talked a lot about. Proposition 8 out in California became an issue this week. If the Supreme Court decided that gays and lesbians had a constitutional right to marry, what would President Santorum do? Would you respect that decision by the judiciary ?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, first off, it's not what's defining my campaign . I, I would say that what's defining my campaign is going out and talking about liberty , talking about economic growth , talking about getting manufacturing jobs back here to this country , trying to grow this economy to make sure that everybody in America can participate in it. I, you know, went after, as you know, Governor Romney very hard for this idea that he's not concerned about the very poor or the very rich. I'm concerned about everybody. And if you look at my track record, it's one that does reach down and make sure that everybody has an opportunity , whether it was the work that I did on welfare reform or the work that I did on creating all sorts of, you know, opportunities for people who are lower income, whether in my state or through economic , you know, enterprise opportunities for lower income people. So my campaign isn't defined by social issues. I understand the media wants to focus that, that -- on those issues, but I've been talking about the issues of economic growth . I've been talking about opportunity for everybody. I've been talking about freedom being at stake. And I have been talking about, to get to your question, I have been talking about the overreach of the judiciary . The judiciary has, has, not, not just in this case, but here, here you have the Ninth Circuit saying that a constitutional amendment is unconstitutional. I mean, that's just on its face almost absurd. The people of the state of California can decide what kind of Constitution they have. There's a constitutional process and they can, they can create in a, in a Constitution rights so they can create responsibilities. That's, that's how the constitutional process works. And what the judges tend to do is say, nope, we're going to bypass the people and we're going to decide what new rights and responsibilities are in, in the Constitution .

    MR. GREGORY: So what would President Santorum do?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: That's not the role of the judiciary .

    MR. GREGORY: Well, what would President Santorum do?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I would the same thing with Roe vs...

    MR. GREGORY: Would you respect the decision ?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: I would so the same thing I'd do with Roe vs. Wade , which I would seek to try to overturn it. I think judicial tyranny is a serious issue in this -- in this race and in this country , and we need judges who respect the people's voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution , you know, what the Constitution says if, in fact, they're going to go through a constitutional amendment process, which is what they did. The judges should respect that.

    MR. GREGORY: There are other issues, social issues, the role of women in society that you've spoken out about and you've written about and, and you've been scrutinized for, but maybe not everybody is aware of some of the things you've said. You've been asked about women in combat , which is an issue that came up this week. You've also talked about, you know, your view of feminism, and it's something that you wrote about. I want to show something that you wrote in your book " It Takes a Family ." "The radical feminists ," you wrote, "succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness." Now, Senator, everything I've learned about feminism from my working mother, my working sister and my working wife is that it's about respecting the choice of working or not working, not somehow the choice of working undermining the, the traditional family.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I would agree with that if that's what it was about, but I can tell you as talking -- I had a working mother, too, and working mother actually made more money than my dad throughout her career, and that was somewhat unusual back in the 1950s and '60s. And my wife is a working, working woman. We had children and she decided to, to take a career, take off time in her career and raise children. And I can tell you this section was written in large part in cooperation with her as a mother, who as a lawyer and neonatal intensive nurse, someone with a great amount of professional experience, who felt very much like society and those radical feminists that, that I was referring to, were not affirming her choice . We're looking -- we're looking that as a choice that was not, in fact, the right choice . And, and there are a lot working -- a lot of moms out there who did, who did step away from the workforce who feel that their choices are not as respected as those who continue in the workplace. All I'm saying is, and what I said in that book and what I've continued to say is we should affirm both choices. They are both very, very important things and, and, and women should have the, have the right to make those choices and should be affirmed completely as to whether the choice they make. That's what the book says.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And, and I stand by what I said. And with respect to the, to the issue of women in the military , you know, I understand that women in the military right now do serve in very hazardous positions and are, in fact, subject to -- and we've seen a lot of injury, even serving, serving in front line positions. What I was referring to is women in infantry, in combat in the front lines .

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And that, that to me is a fundamentally different issue than the great work that women are providing in the military today.

    MR. GREGORY: Are they physically -- I guess there's...

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And doing so in harm's way.

    MR. GREGORY: Are they physically up to the job of serving on the front lines ?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, there are obviously different physical requirements. I mean, you go to the -- to any of the academies, there are different requirements, physical requirements for men and women . Why? Because there are physiological differences between men and women .

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And that's, that's one of the things that we have to consider in, in deploying them in an infantry position out there on the front line . And I don't -- you know, I don't know of any, you know, any real discussion candidly that's talking about doing that.

    MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you one more question about women . If you are president of the United States ...

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ...and women want to work in your administration , do single women without children only need apply? Are you going to respect the decision of women to come work for you if that's the choice they make, or would they be somehow held by, by radical feminists ?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, as -- I think if you go back and look at the people who have worked for me, we've had single women , we've had married women , we've had all sort of folks. We don't -- I don't, you know, those are decisions , again, I affirm...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: ...that, that if women want to come into the workplace, great. If they don't, that's great. You know, we're going to look at the best qualified people and there will be plenty of working moms who will be in our administration who will be adding greatly to the conservative cause that I believe in.

    MR. GREGORY: Got a couple of minutes left. I want to talk about pure politics with you. Let me show the primary calendar right now and have you take me through what you see is your path to the nomination. Later this month is Arizona and Michigan . You've decided to, to really stake your claim in Michigan . Then onto Washington and Super Tuesday . Where's the path, Senator?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I mean, if you'd have asked me that question two weeks ago, I would've said, well, I'm going to win Minnesota , Missouri and Colorado , there would've been some chuckling, you know, behind the cameras. The fact of the matter is we've done pretty well in, in going out and making our case to the public generally. We've had a great week. We've raised over $3 million this week alone and the money continues to pour in. We feel great that some of these polls have come out in Michigan that show us ahead at this point, show us closing in Arizona , and we're going to work. I mean, I'm going to be in Washington state tomorrow, Idaho the next day, North Dakota the day after that, and then giving a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in Michigan and we're going to go out and again, make the case that we're the best candidate to contrast with Barack Obama. We've got the boldest plan to help everybody get to work in America , particularly in the state of Michigan . We're going to talk about the Made in the USA plan that, you know, creating an opportunity for manufacturing jobs. We're going to talk energy in North Dakota . Obviously, the Bakken up there is a key element for us to, to increase our energy supply here in America as...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: ...very clear that the more energy and the cheaper it is here in this country , the better the standard of living, the quality of life and the economy 's doing. So we're going to talk about energy and manufacturing this week and we think that's a great and positive message for the country .

    MR. GREGORY: Is it going to be hard, as Newt Gingrich said, the longer conservatives stay split, the harder it is to beat Romney and then ultimately Obama ? Is that your view as well?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: No. I mean, I won three races this week. That -- I didn't, I didn't -- you know, and I beat Governor Romney by 30 points in Missouri , almost 30 in Minnesota . And in a, in a place in Colorado , which he got 61 percent of the vote and worked hard, campaigned there, spent money there, more than I did, I was able to beat him in Colorado by 5. And so I, I feel very good that, you know, this is a two-person race right now. That's how we're focused on it. If you look at the results from Maine , I mean, we did -- you know, we didn't spend any time there, we did much better than we expected. CPAC , again, we felt very good that it's, you know, a two person race and the other two, the other two candidates were pretty far behind. And I think Michigan and Arizona are going to show the same thing. We're going to stay focused on presenting the best plan, the best ideas to defeat Barack Obama and I think the people of this country are looking for someone who's going to focus on the issues, focus on Obama , and not play the kind of petty politics that we've seen in this campaign to date.

    MR. GREGORY: Is there an area, a decision that you would take as president, or position that you might adopt even in the course of the campaign , that would make conservatives uncomfortable that you think you could take and still get the nomination?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, look, I'm a conservative . I mean, I'm someone who believes in the founding principles that, you know, we have -- we're a great country because we were built from the bottom up , one family, one church , one community organization , you know, one civic organization, one small business at a time. That's, that's what made America the greatest country in the world . That's, that's who I am. And I don't believe in government taking control of things and, and ordering things from the top down. So you're not going to see, you know, the, the October surprise, oh, Rick Santorum 's for government doing something. It's just not what I believe in. I believe that government needs to be there as a referee on the sidelines, but they shouldn't be out there playing quarterback and running the offense. They have to, they have to be on the sidelines and let the American people , free people , believing in the opportunities that, that America creates, you know, build a great and just society.

    MR. GREGORY: Finally, Senator, you know, I'm sure like me, you get offended when people say that Washington is not cool and doesn't have a fashion sense because at this conservative gathering, look what I found. If you've contributed nothing else to this campaign , you have brought back the sweater vest . And here is a Rick Santorum ...

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: The sweater vest .

    MR. GREGORY: ... sweater vest that will certainly endure whatever the results of this campaign . True enough?

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I hope so. I mean, you know, it's -- you know, people have referred to me as the Richie Cunningham candidate. You know, a little bit, a little bit too clean and upstanding. But you know what, you know, contrasting that with what's going on out there in the popular culture , a little bit of Richie Cunningham wouldn't be a bad thing for our society right now.

    MR. GREGORY: I think that's a headline. Thank you very much . Senator Santorum , appreciate it.

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Thank you.

    MR. GREGORY: And coming up, will the return of social issues on the campaign trail benefit Rick Santorum ? Will it pose a problem for Mitt Romney ? Plus, five years ago, then Senator Obama launched his campaign by criticizing failed leadership and the smallness of our politics. Five years later, how will voters size up his leadership? Our political roundtable previews the fall campaign , head of the super PAC supporting President Obama Bill Burton , MSNBC 's Joe Scarborough , The Wall Street Journal 's Peggy Noonan , and The Washington Post 's E.J. Dionne . Coming right back.

    MR. GREGORY: We are back with our political roundtable. Joining me, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne , Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan , host of MSNBC 's " Morning Joe ," Joe Scarborough , and former deputy White House press secretary now senior strategist and co-founder of Priorities USA Action , Bill Burton . That's not a, that's not like a front company , that is actually, that is a super PAC that is supporting President Obama and that's why I wanted to have you here. You have experience being an aide to President Obama and now working on the, on the outside on some of these issues and we talk a lot about money and politics. So we'll get to that. But I want to start with everybody on a week, as I said at the top, the culture wars are suddenly back...

    MS. PEGGY NOONAN: Hm.

    MR. GREGORY: ...over this birth control decision . So where does it leave all the players in this race? E.J. Dionne , you've been outspoken about this issue in terms of how the White House handled it. Is this an issue that the president wanted?

    MR. E.J. DIONNE: Well, if he didn't want it, then he acted in exactly the wrong way. I mean, I found this a remarkable sort of moment in the White House where they had warning for months and months and months that they had to be careful about this because even liberal Catholics like me, who are not against contraception , felt there was a legitimate religious liberty argument here and that you could find ways of providing contraception for women without having church -based institutions pay for them. They came to the right place, but this solution was available to them months and months ago and they seemed to reject it. And I think they hurt themselves in the process, even if I'm glad he finally came around to the right decision .

    MR. GREGORY: The new cover of Newsweek , Peggy , is " The Politics of Sex ." And you heard from Jack Lew , A, they're not backing down on this. They think this is a done deal.

    MS. NOONAN: Yes.

    MR. GREGORY: Even if the hierarchy of the church does not and other conservatives don't think it is. Is this a public health issue that they want to run on or something else?

    MS. NOONAN: You mean why has all of a sudden this come forward ? It's interesting to me that it is being portrayed as the, " contraception story." It is a story about more than that, as we all know. It is about contraceptive devices, a board of facients and sterilization procedures that the Catholic Church found unacceptable and, and wanted a conscience clause for itself and its agency. So it's about a First Amendment case, about religious freedom . It, it, it seems to me an odd and mischievous subject to, to be put forward at this point in America , which is already a country that is torn apart by so many things. I don't get the higher strategy, I simply thought the administration was wrong. I'm not convinced the president's accommodation will work, but I think it will probably take it to some degree out of the public sphere and into legislation and the courts.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, let me -- yeah.

    MR. DIONNE: Just very quickly, if I could. I think that as long as this was a religious liberty argument, the church and its allies, the bishops and their allies, were -- had a very good chance of winning the argument, and in effect I think they did. There is some conservatives in the church who seem to now want to move it to a contraception argument and the Obama administration would love that.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. DIONNE: If this is a fight about contraception and the availability of contraception Obama can win that.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, but let's, let's talk about the, the...

    MS. NOONAN: That's what the church thinks. Can I just note, by the way...

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MS. NOONAN: ...as Catholics it was so great for three weeks that we all got along. We were all in agreement.

    MR. DIONNE: Yeah.

    MS. NOONAN: I mean, this is a church that...

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah, exactly.

    MR. DIONNE: Persistent Obama united Catholics .

    MS. NOONAN: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: All right, but beyond the Catholic Church , Joe Scarborough , the larger playing field here, which is Decision 2012 ...

    MR. JOE SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. Right. Mm-hmm.

    MR. GREGORY: ...I mean, this is in many ways much more about role of government , government making healthcare decisions . That's how it seems to me the conservatives will argue this.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Right.

    MR. GREGORY: That's what you heard from Senator Santorum .

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Right. you know, before the Friday deal everything was breaking conservatives way, united conservatives not only at CPAC but at even -- economic conservatives that didn't like to talk about social issues saw this as a great overreach. And you had Democrats , you had the sitting Democratic vice president, you had Lieberman , a former vice presidential nominee for the Democrats , Kerry , a former presidential nominee for the Democrats , on and on and on saying that the president overstepped his bounds. Listen, at the end of the day , substantively there was no change. You have a president saying, "You don't want to pay for health care ? Fine, we'll give it away for free!" There's a free lunch . All you're doing is shifting the burden to all Catholics now who are all paying for these contraceptive devices that they may -- they may find to be immoral. But at the end of the day , this is all the president needs politically because now we have -- we have sisters debating bishops , and we've got liberal Catholics debating conservatives Catholics . You've got Peggy and E.J. now once again where they should be, on opposite sides of an issue. For the president that's all he needed to do. He had a unified Catholic front against him, he split that in half now and now he can move on. And I agree with E.J. If this debate moves on and stops being about religious freedom and starts being about contraceptives -- contraception , then Republicans lose in a very big way.

    MR. GREGORY: Bill Burton :

    MR. BILL BURTON: Well, I think that on the politics of this, the president was actually in an OK place before he made that compromise . Nothing indicated that broadly his numbers were going down, and in fact the Gallup daily track had him at the highest point since he's been in June.

    MR. GREGORY: Then why did he rush to compromise ?

    MR. BURTON: Well, because he saw that some leadership was required here to bring the Catholics together with the progressive community and figure out a way to actually move forward on this issue. But I think that before the compromise the opponents were separated into three different camps. The folks who had a legitimate religious liberty concern, the folks who are actually just against contraception , and the people who were just playing politics. And what the compromise did was it isolated those folks who are just against contraception and who are just playing politics. It left the Mitt Romneys and Rick Santorums out on a, out on a limb outside of the

    mainstream of, mainstream of American....

    MR. GREGORY: Is it really outside the mainstream, though? I mean, that goes back to this point about it gets you into a debate about health care , about what health care represents in a, in a debate that is going to be pretty heated on that subject.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: But, David , it didn't just happen in a vacuum. You had three things happening in rapid succession. I guarantee you the Obama White House , from what I've heard, didn't like it...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...and Mitt Romney , it's a nightmare for Mitt Romney .

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah, talk about that.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: You had, you had the Planned Parenthood dust-up, then you had the HHS decision exploding, and then you had the Ninth Circuit deciding to overturn the, the constitutional amendment out in California , 14 million people voted in that. All of that lined up badly for the president, but much worse for Mitt Romney ...

    MR. GREGORY: Do you...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...who doesn't want to talk about social issues and now they're front and center and Rock Santorum is the big winner.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, that's the question. I mean, have social issues gotten into this Republican race, E.J. , in a way that leaves Romney already struggling with conservatives without a big enough voice?

    MR. DIONNE: I think it's a real problem for Romney for the reasons Joe said, that he does not want this to be about social issues, he's been on various sides of important social issues, and in the larger narrative it goes to the question well what does Mitt Romney stand for?

    MR. GREGORY: Mm -hmm.

    MR. DIONNE: Whether you like or dislike Rick Santorum you know what Rick Santorum stands for and that helps him. But if...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, but E.J...

    MR. DIONNE: ...can I just go back to something Bill said?

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...E.J., he's a severe conservative . Did you not hear the speech? He's a severe conservative .

    MR. DIONNE: I like compassionate conservatives better. But the -- just on something Bill said. He was very -- I agree where the politics are now, but I think he was very charitable to the president on this. You know, he -- the president should have seen this coming a long time before he did. And I still think the administration has to look back and say, how did it lose track of that Obama who was so open on religious questions in 2006 and in the 2009 Notre Dame speech...

    MS. NOONAN: Seems sophisticated about it.

    MR. DIONNE: ...and was very sophisticated. They got to find that guy again.

    MS. NOONAN: I have to tell you one of the things that is I think will be very damaging for the president long term on this, social issues aside, this whole argument we've been having for the past three weeks once again puts what had been a dormant issue, Obamacare , the president's healthcare plan, forward once again as the controversy it started out as. It is once again having -- forcing people to think, God, this sort -- this planned kind of forces people, it has dictates, it's decided on high in Washington and we have to go along with it even if it hurts our conscience or, or shows disrespect for our church . It's not good for the president if we go back to looking at Obamacare as that bullying and confusing entity that is 3,000 pages long and they sort of make it up as they go along, its meaning and its application.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, let me interject something here because you're getting to something that I think is important, which are as the president campaigns for re- election these competing views of what he is, what he represents, what he wants to do. And Mitt Romney spoke about this at CPAC a couple of days ago and I want to play this tape about this one view of the president. Watch.

    FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: I'm convinced that if we do our job, if we lead with conviction and integrity, that history will record the Obama presidency as the last gasp of liberalism's great failure and a turning point for the conservative era to come.

    MR. GREGORY: So here's the counterpoint to that, Bill Burton . Ezra Klein , we were talking about a few minutes ago, writes for The Washington Post . He writes this about Obama . A different view. " Obama [is] a moderate president in an immoderate time. For progressives that moderation has been repeatedly frustrating. For conservatives it's been obscured by a caricature of the president as free-enterprise-hating socialist. And for the White House it's been a calculated strategy. We'll know in November whether it was the right one." Ideologue or moderate?

    MR. BURTON: I think the president has governed exactly as he campaigned and exactly as the kind of guy he was even back in the state Senate where he avoided huge controversies and tried to be a leader and bring folks together. And I don't think anybody should be surprised at the kind of president that he's been given the kind of campaign that he ran. And if you look at Andrew Sullivan 's piece today I think that that's actually a good snapshot at who the president is. He's done a great job of trying to push his opponents into the -- into territory that leaves them outside the mainstream while the president can chart a course towards the middle.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, let me just say Andrew Sullivan 's piece is preposterous because, because he claims...

    MR. GREGORY: This is in Newsweek .

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: ... Andrew Sullivan claims that Barack Obama saw this coming all along and he was just setting his enemies up into a trap.

    MR. BURTON: Well, I don't, I don't buy that part of it.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Which -- no, well, but which means that he was trying to set Joe Biden up in a trap and John Kerry up in a trap.

    MR. GREGORY: For the larger -- no.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: No, but the larger picture -- one thing that Andrew Sullivan did say, since we just knocked him around, let's defend him. He did say you can't have it both ways. Barack Obama can't be Joseph Stalin and Jimmy Carter at the same time. Pick your poison. Is he an incompetent moderate, according to the right, or is he a dangerous ideologue? The fact of the matter is, look at his last State of the Union address . He is now in Clinton territory because he understands, like Bill Clinton , he got a lot of big things done on -- from the left for the first year and a half, and he's going to spend the rest of his time, whether it's the next year or the next five years, compromising with the Republicans . He's not going to be...

    MR. GREGORY: And compromising with himself, right? What happened to the, you know, the guy who stood up in front of the country during the State of the Union in 2010 and criticized the role of the super PACs ? Now he's encouraging people to give to your super PAC .

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. And that's your fault, Burton .

    MR. BURTON: Well, I just -- I don't take all the blame. But the president -- from what I read, the president has not changed his position on whether or not campaign finance ought to be reformed. I mean, the difference here is that Republicans look at campaign finance the way it is now and say, yeah, that's how we want it. We want unlimited donations. We want nondisclosure. We want all those things. Democrats , the president, all of us think that there ought to be disclosure, there are to be different rules. Our view is that we're not going to let one team of the field while we stand on the sidelines. Look, Major League Baseball can say, we're going to move baseball to 10 innings.

    MR. DIONNE: Yeah. I...

    MR. BURTON: That doesn't mean I'm not going to put a team out there for the 10th.

    MR. GREGORY: Wait a minute, let me get Peggy in here.

    MS. NOONAN: As a conservative , as I look at the administration , here's one thing that I think is kind of new the past few years. The leftist, if you will, part of the president's base seems to me to be, A, more leftist and, B, more powerful. When you have a White House , in the past month, E.J. , that says, NARAL , National Abortion Rights Action League , and Planned Parenthood are here, the Catholic Church and I would argue the First Amendment are here, Who wins? NARAL and Planned Parenthood , that, to me, is the kind of politic calculation, just politics that is kind of mad, and that suggests a certain sort of, I hate to say extremism, but something rather extreme. Bill ...

    MR. DIONNE: But keep in mind that the American people ...

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: I think...

    MS. NOONAN: May I say, Bill Clinton wouldn't have done it. This is not a traditional Democratic Party thing. This was a break with recent history.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Respond, E.J. , yeah.

    MR. DIONNE: We agreed there was overreach on this contraception rule. But I know the left. The left is not to the left of where it was, number one. Number two, Barack Obama is a moderate progressive with the emphasis on moderate. Most socialists are insulted when Barack Obama is called a socialist. It's absurd that this man is a socialist. And I think most of the country ...

    MS. NOONAN: I wasn't saying that. What I mean is he's being tugged.

    MR. DIONNE: Oh, no, I mean, you weren't saying that, but I was -- right. But -- and -- but I don't -- I think right now what you have is that the left is very happy he is raising the issue of economic inequality which Occupy Wall Street pushed him toward. A lot of the country agrees with him on that. And so actually I think the pressures to move further left, and there isn't that much of a left in America to begin with, are really minimized.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me get a break in here. I want to come back and talk about trends and takeaways, some of the big points made in the course of our discussion today, and also the hot political stories trending this morning, right after this commercial break .

    MR. GREGORY: We're back with more from our roundtable. I want to check in with our trend tracker, the big stories this morning. Romney winning Maine , giving him a little bit of new momentum. He also won that straw poll for CPAC , which is the conservative gathering in the Obama budget . I remember they haven't passed a budget in about a thousand days so I don't know how much discussion there's going to be about that. Number four was that E.J. didn't know Richie Cunningham from " Happy Days " when Rick Santorum said we need more Richie Cunningham in the race.

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: Oh, my gosh.

    MR. GREGORY: That's all people are going to be talking about.

    MR. DIONNE: That's -- I am sometimes culturally deaf and my children are the only people who can bring me back.

    MR. GREGORY: Who can save you. But the birth control controversy, is it over, is it not? That was a big debate at the top of the program.

    MR. LEW: I think that the, the issue of providing women all forms of preventative health care has been and remains very important. The, the importance of protecting religious liberties in this countries has been important to the president, will always be. I think we've resolved this issue in a way where we can now go forward .

    FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: The idea that you can have the insurance company , and by the way, many and -- of -- a large number of Catholic social service providers are self-insured, and so the self- insured is the insurance company , they're going to be forced to still provide. So there's no compromise here.

    MR. GREGORY: Is it over? Is it not over, Joe ?

    MR. SCARBOROUGH: It's not over because Republicans are going to be pushing it on the House floor. They need to be very careful. They were winning when this was a First Amendment issue. When suburban women start thinking that they're attacking the rights of contraception , that becomes very dangerous for them politically. They need to tread very lightly.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. We'll be watching it. Before we go here this morning, a programming note. This week for our Press Pass conversation online I spoke with a leader in the Christian conservative movement, Tony Perkins , about the birth control controversy, also the 2012 race, specifically about Romney . It was very interesting. You can find that on our blog presspass.msnbc.com. Thank you all for a great discussion this morning. That's it for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS .

updated 2/19/2012 12:30:06 PM ET 2012-02-19T17:30:06

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday the fight for Michigan is now the fight of the campaign for Mitt Romney as Senator Santorum's momentum threatens to turn the race for the White House upside down.

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(Videotape)

FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA):  We live in a time of great consequence and Michigan, Michigan is in the center of it.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  The Santorum surge is for real in Michigan and in national polls.  But are Republicans relying too heavily on social issues to ignite the base?  A showdown over contraception on Capitol Hill and the all-male image that promises to energize female voters.

(Videotape)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA):  Where are the women?

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  We're going to break down the race this morning.  With us, Republican strategist and former White House counselor to President Bush, Ed Gillespie; chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, Andrea Mitchell; the executive editor for Bloomberg News, Al Hunt; and White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper.

But first this morning, a preview of the fall campaign.  a debate about what government can do to spur economic recovery.  You saw the headlines this week. The president argues the auto bailouts worked.

(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  Manufacturing is coming back.  Companies are starting to bring jobs back.  The economy is getting stronger.  The recovery is speeding up.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  So what impact will the extension of the payroll tax cut have on jobs?  With us this morning, Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, and the committee's ranking member, Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen.

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

MR. GREGORY:  And good morning.  Nine days to go until Republican voters go to the polls in Michigan and Arizona, and recent debates over contraception and gay marriage have put social issues back in the forefront of this campaign.  At an Ohio Christian Alliance event yesterday, Republican candidate Rick Santorum attacked President Obama on a range of issues and for what he called the "phony theology of his agenda." Listen.

(Videotape, yesterday)

SEN. SANTORUM:  It's not about you, it's not about you.  It's not about your quality of life, it's not about your jobs.  It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology.  Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but none--no less a theology.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Joining me now, chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, and the committee's ranking member Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

Welcome to you both.  I want to get to big issues about the economy and the budget, but we are in the heat of a presidential campaign here and a primary fight on the Republican side and I want to ask more about these social issues. Rick Santorum, as I said, talked about a phony theology, as he put it, that the president has.  He went on after that speech to stand by those remarks. Here's more of what he had to say.

(Videotape, yesterday)

SEN. SANTORUM:  The president has reached a new low in this country's history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before.  And if he doesn't want to call it his imposition of his values of theology, that's fine. But it is an imposition of his values over, over a church who has very clear theological reasons for opposing what the Obama administration's forcing on them.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  So, Chairman Ryan, let me start with you.  Is that what we can expect from Republicans in this campaign, is a faith-based broadside and an attack against the president's leadership?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI):  Well, I couldn't hear all of that clip from Rick Santorum, but what I would say is what we're getting from the White House with this conscience issue, it's not an issue about contraception, it's an issue that reveals a political philosophy that the president is showing that basically treats our constitutional rights as if they're revocable privileges from our government, not inalienable rights by our creator.  And so what I would simply say is we're seeing this new government activism, sort of a paternalistic, arrogant political philosophy that puts new government-granted rights in the way of our constitutional rights.  And so what I think it really is is that it's an argument for freedom, for our founding principles and for protecting those constitutional rights which right with his new mandate from HHS, like I said, it's really not about contraception, it's about violating our First Amendment rights to religious freedom and of conscience.  That's what I think he's trying to get at.

MR. GREGORY:  You think it's an appropriate part of the debate for a Republican contender for the White House to say the president has a phony theology as part of his agenda and say things like, "Well, if he says he's a Christian then he's a Christian." Haven't we been through all of this before trying to demonize the president?

REP. RYAN:  Yeah, I wouldn't, I wouldn't characterize it that way.  I would simply say that he has a political philosophy that believes that he can mandate certain benefits and activities of the American people which conflicts with their constitutional rights.  He believes that these new government-granted rights trump our constitutional rights such as our First Amendment rights to conscience, to freedom of religion.  So I would, I would go after him on his political philosophy, which violates our founding principles.

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Van Hollen, how do you see it?

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD):  David, what you're seeing here is that as the economy is improving and more and more people are going back to work and it's clear that the president's policies on the economy are working you find Republicans going back to the old red meat social issues that helps rile up their base.  That's what's going on.  The president put on the table a very principled compromise on this issue, making sure that women would have the health care they need, including contraception, and also making sure that people could pursue their own religious liberty.  And that's why groups like Catholic Charities, the Catholic hospitals associations have said this is a fair compromise, that it accomplishes the goal of both women's health as well as religious freedom.

MR. GREGORY:  How do you respond, though, more generally to what you heard Senator Santorum say out there on the campaign trail energizing the base by talking about a phony theology that he believes the president adheres to?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Well, if what he's saying, and again, I didn't hear all the tape, but what, if what he's saying is he's actually questioning the president's faith, that is a new low in American politics, certainly something that has no place in our political dialogue.  Again, if that's what he meant, he should retract and apologize for the statement.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, part of this, of course, is not just happening on the campaign trail, Chairman Ryan, as you well know.  Republicans in the House are taking on this issue of contraception and what they see as a religious freedom test.  And this was the image at the first of two hearings...

REP. RYAN:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...by the House Government and Oversight Committee, all men, all religious leaders, all men, no women.  You heard Nancy Pelosi, she had a few things to say about that.  Listen.

(Videotape, Thursday)

REP. PELOSI:  Where are the women?  And that's a good question for the whole debate.  Where are the women?  Where are the women on that panel?  Imagine they're having a panel on women's health and they don't have any women on the panel.  Duh.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  I mean, this was the "duh" moment.  There was a second panel where there were women, but there's still a larger question here.  There are Democratic leaders who are women who are using this for fundraising to say to a lot of women around the country who understand that contraception is not just about birth control but about women's health, that this should really be an issue.  Are you concerned as a Republican that Republicans are overdoing this issue and could actually hurt the party's chances in November?

REP. RYAN:  No.  I'm concerned that the issue might get misconstrued.  Look, every person in America, men or women, are free to use contraceptions as they want to.  That's not the issue here.  The question is, is should the government have the kind of power to mandate these things of us.  This compromise is really a distinction without a difference, it's mandating that everybody pay for everyone else's free, you know, birth control and contraception.  The question is, is can the government mandate that people violate their religious teaching, their conscience, their freedom of religion. Look, I can tell you as a Catholic the charities and the hospitals, they don't enforce doctrine, they don't interpret it.  It's the bishops and they're very clear in saying this is a violation of our constitutional rights.  So it's an issue of constitutional rights and of the government having the kind of power to trump them.  Look, the way I look at this is if the president is willing to trample on our constitutional rights in a difficult election year, imagine what he will do if in implementing the rest of this law after he doesn't have to face the voters again if he gets re-elected.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, so you have two different visions here, Congressman Van Hollen, which is what you heard Congressman Ryan say or whether this is fundamentally a women's health issue and protection of accessibility to key elements of women's health.  Is that what you're going to see play out here?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Yes, that's the debate and it was quite a spectacle the other day when the Republican chairman of the committee, Darrell Issa, refused to allow the Democratic witness, a woman, to testify on that full first panel. And I do think it strikes the American people as strange to have a panel that's talking about this issue, trying to protect women's health and also protect religious liberty, without having a woman on the, on the main panel and denying her the right to testify.

Look, I think that Republicans are making a big mistake.  After the president made the principal compromise that he did to make sure that we protect women's health and we also protect her religious liberty.  A lot of states have insurance requirements that also meet that balance and that test and that's all the president has done in this case.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to get to one more issue before I do turn to the economy and the budget that--because it's really on top of the news throughout the week, and that's gay marriage.  You saw the veto in New Jersey, Maryland Congressman Van Hollen, as you know, has passed this and ultimately we're going to get to eight states, if it's signed in Maryland, who have recognized same-sex marriage in their states.  It's a significant part of the population. Is this--should this be a campaign issue as we move in this country toward a situation where blue state America, if you will, is supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry and red state America is voting against it or doesn't want to have it on the ballot?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Are you asking me, David?

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Van Hollen, that's for you.  Yeah, go ahead.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Yes.  I'm sorry.  Well, no, I--certainly this is a legitimate issue and part of the debate we should have.  I support civil marriage equality.  People have different views on this.  But I think that the main focus of the American people remains on the economy and jobs and that's why it's interesting to hear Republicans trying to switch the subject in so many areas because what we're seeing is the president's plan has been working, he inherited an economy that was in total free fall, we've passed the recovery bill, we helped rescue the auto industry, we have now seen 23 months of consecutive private sector job growth, three and a half million new jobs created.

MR. GREGORY:  OK.  Right, but...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  We need to nurture that.  That should be the focus.

MR. GREGORY:  But we're--I know, and we're going to get to the economy.  But I asked you a direct question about same-sex marriage.  You don't support same-sex marriage, do you?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  No, I do, I do support civil marriage equality. I--especially with the provisions they have, for example, in the Maryland legislation that's being worked on to make sure...

MR. GREGORY:  But you don't support, you don't support what Maryland has passed as a state, do you?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  I support what Maryland has passed, yes.

MR. GREGORY:  So same-sex marriage is, in your view, constitutional and same-sex couples should be fully recognized as a marriage?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  I support the Maryland legislation, yes.

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Ryan, do you think this is an issue that's legitimate for the presidential campaign?  Do we have to come to a point where the country reconciles different views about this and we have a consistent way of looking at same-sex marriage?

REP. RYAN:  Actually, I came on to talk about the debt crisis we have and the budget and I think that's really the driving issue of this, this election.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

REP. RYAN:  But I supported the Wisconsin amendment to define marriage between a man and a woman.  Look, Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act.  If I recall from the last presidential campaign, President Obama, Vice President Biden said that they support marriage as being between a man and a woman.  So you know, I don't know why we're spending all this time talking about this.  We've got a debt crisis coming and the administration just gave us a budget that just simply charts another path to debt and decline.  It's an unserious budget that just fails at tackling these challenges and I think that's what we ought to be talking about right now.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, but as you know, there's a presidential campaign and you're a Republican leader in the Congress and the reality is that these social issues are occupying a lot of bandwidth with the Republican primary voters.  So you may want to talk about other issues, the truth is some of the standard-bearers of your party are also talking about these issues and that's why I wanted to get your views on them.  But I do want to move onto the economy.

REP. RYAN:  Oh, sure.  But I don't think...

MR. GREGORY:  And let's, let's just talk about the payroll tax cut, then, that was passed this week.  Neither of you actually supported it and my question for you, Congressman Ryan, is do you think this has any economic impact on spurring economic recovery or jobs?

REP. RYAN:  Well, I think Chris did support it, so just to set the record straight on that.  I did not because I don't think this works to grow the economy.  Look, stimulus spending and temporary tax rebates, they didn't work when President Bush tried them.  They didn't work when President Obama tried them.  And they're a very poor substitute for pro-growth economic policies. And that's the problem here is these are crowding out what we could otherwise do to bring more certainty to job creators.  This does not do that.  And what just drives me crazy is we couldn't get the Democrats in the Senate and the White House to support cutting $100 billion over 10 years to make sure that this did not hurt the deficit.  Look, $100 billion over 10 years of spending cuts, they couldn't come up with?  The president just gave us a $47 trillion budget and he wouldn't agree to spend $46.9 trillion to help pay for this? And so we supported extending this holiday, paying for all these things with spending cuts.  I voted for that.

But now we're talking about not paying for these things and I don't think this works.  It's just not good economic growth policy and we've already sort of proven that these temporary, sugar-high economics, these stimulus effects just don't work to grow the economy and they're a very poor substitute for lowering tax rates, for having predictable regulations, for getting rid of crony capitalism, for addressing the real drivers of our debt, which would do so much more to grow our economy than doing these sorts of things.

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Van Hollen, I spoke with business leaders this week at a discussion, a panel here in Washington.  You can't argue that this is somehow a big profile in courage to extend a tax cut that's not paid for at a time of great fiscal imbalance in Washington.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Well, first, David, I do support the extension of the payroll tax cut.  We, the Democrats, did want it to be offset.  We proposed that we offset it by closing a lot of corporate tax loopholes, that we offset it by asking folks at the very high end of the income scale to pitch in more. We did not think it made sense at all to be providing 160 million working Americans with a payroll tax cut to help them and at the same time cut things like the Medicare support and increase their premiums to help offset it.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  That didn't make any sense at all.  With respect to...

MR. GREGORY:  So you voted against--and that's why you voted against it.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  No, I--yeah.  I voted against it because of one of the, one of the pay fors disproportionately impacted a lot of federal employees.  But I signed the Conference Committee Report.  Your question was did you support the payroll tax cut and I do, very, very strongly.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Because Paul is not right on this.  It will help economic growth.  It could add up to 1 percent to GDP this year.  It's common sense. You're putting more money in the pockets of the American people.  Then they can go out and spend that money buying goods and services.  That means businesses, small businesses can sell more goods and services.  They can hire more people.  Just as the Congressional Budget Office determined that the Recovery Act at its peak in 2010 saved or created up to 3.3 million jobs in the economy, and just as the auto rescue helped save the auto industry and save about a million jobs, the payroll tax cut is an important step.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  So let me...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  It's not the be all and end all, but it's an important step.

MR. GREGORY:  So Chairman Ryan, let me ask a larger, philosophical question right now.  Vision of government, we've got a budget here that's probably not going to be passed because they haven't passed one in over 1,000 days.  We're in a campaign year, so budgets seem not to really matter.  What you have are campaign blueprints and you have a Republican vision of what government ought to do for Americans and a Democratic vision of what they ought to do.  I had the chief of staff, Jack Lew here, former budget chairman, excuse me, former head of OMB for the president.  And I asked him about what was necessary now and I want you to respond to what he said.

(Videotape, last Sunday)

MR. JACK LEW:  I think that there's pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today.  We need to be on a path where over the next several years we bring our deficit under control.  Right now we have a recovery that's taken root and if we were to put in austerity measures right now, it would take the economy in the wrong way.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  So this is the fundamental point, Congressman Ryan, do you disagree with that?  Because Ben Bernanke, the Fed chief has made this point, which is protect the recovery, don't get into the realm of austerity where we're belt-tightening to the point, you know, that you see what's happening in Greece, that you could that you could hurt recovery that's occurring here in the country.

REP. RYAN:  Well, first of all, the White House's rhetoric just doesn't match the substance.  What Chairman Bernanke said to us in the Budget Committee is if you put in a place a long-term plan to fix our debt crisis, that will help the economy today.  The issue, David, is that the White House isn't even trying to solve this problem.  When you strip away all the budget gimmicks and the accounting tricks, they just gave us a budget that has a net spending increase of $1.5 trillion and a tax increase of $1.9 trillion.  It's not leadership.  If you just did nothing, the debt is set to go up 78 percent.  If you pass the president's budget, it goes up 76 percent.  So what they're doing is they're not leading.  They're ducking responsibility and that threatens our economy.  And that will make us more like Greece.

Here's the issue, if we keep kicking the can down the road and we don't face up to these great fiscal challenges we have, we have a debt-fueled economic crisis ahead of us.  And if we don't address them now, then it gets ugly like Greece and then you have to impose the kind of austerity that they're imposing in Greece.  We're saying let's, let's fix this now where we can do it on our own terms.  Let's put in place a plan to get this debt under control, to reduce our tax rates, broaden the base, and you can actually get more revenues into the government that way.  And so we're actually giving the country a very clear and specific plan to get us off this path of debt onto a path of prosperity.  And what we think we will achieve by actually offering credible solutions vs. the White House, who isn't, is that we'll give the country a choice of two futures.

We feel we owe the nation an opportunity to choose which path they want for America and we're going to be specific.  What is frustrating about the White House is they've had four budget submissions and they've decided to duck, challenge--this challenge every time.  More debt, more spending, more taxes. That hurts our economy.  That will lead to austerity and we think that's wrong and that's why we've put up alternatives and all we seem to get from the president--look, we had Tim Geithner who came to the committee on Thursday who said, "We don't have a definitive solution, we just don't like yours." I can't think of a more perfect example of what sums up this administration's utter lack of leadership.  We have a debt crisis staring us in the face and they're ignoring it.

MR. GREGORY:  OK.

REP. RYAN:  And that will lead to Greek-like austerity.

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Van Hollen, respond.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Thank you very much.  First of all, Jack Lew and Ben Bernanke are right.  If you have a strict austerity policy right now, it will send our economy into a downward spiral.  We will lose the gains that we've made, which is why we need to follow up with the rest of the president's plan. In addition to the payroll tax cut, the president proposed last September that we have a major infrastructure investment.  We have 13 percent unemployment in the construction industry.  We have roads and bridges and airports that need to be renovated and built.  We need to put those things together.  That's the one piece of what this president's jobs plan and budget does.

The second part is we need to balance the deficit in a--deal with it in a balanced way.  This is not a question about whether or not we should reduce the long-term deficit.  It's how.  The Republicans and, and Paul Ryan's budget does this, it's a one-sided, lopsided approach.  They want to take it all out on middle income Americans, and the result is that you're going to have folks like on Medicare, seniors with 23,000 median income, taking the burden for increased medical costs because they do not want to ask folks at the very high end to pitch in by closing corporate tax loopholes and by going back to the same top tax rate that was in place during the Clinton years when the economy boomed and when we balanced our budget by the end.  They don't want to do that.  They've all signed a pledge, not all, 98 percent of the House Republicans have signed a pledge saying they won't close one tax loophole for the purpose of deficit reduction.  The first action taken by the House of Representatives when the Republicans took charge was to change the House rules to say that you don't have to pay for tax cuts for the folks at the very top. You can put that on the credit card.  What we need to do is take a balanced approach to deficit reduction.  That's what Simpson-Bowles did.  That's what other bipartisan groups did.  We need to make some cuts, and the administration's budget makes $2.50 in cuts...

MR. GREGORY:  All right, let me...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  ...for every $1 in revenue.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me get in here.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  That's a balanced approach.  That's fair.  That's what the American people want.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  You've got two visions there.  I want to do a quick one for each of you before I'm out of time.

REP. RYAN:  OK.

MR. GREGORY:  And, Congressman Ryan, if you want to add something on.  I do want to ask you a straight up...

REP. RYAN:  They don't take...

MR. GREGORY:  ...political question, Congressman Ryan, first, which is if Mitt Romney, who I thought at some point was the front-runner on the Republican side, loses Michigan, do you think it's possible and even advisable that someone else should get into the race on the Republican side?

REP. RYAN:  I don't see how that can happen.  It's just too late, I think. And first of all, it's February.  These things have a way of taking time.  I assume this, this is going to drag out well into April, so we'll be relevant here in Wisconsin.  And I just--I have a hard time seeing how somebody could get in at this late date.

MR. GREGORY:  You wanted to make another quick point, though, on, on what Chris Van Hollen said.

REP. RYAN:  Well, yeah.  Look, I would say I hardly think a budget that never ever proposes to balance the budget is a balanced plan.  We're talk--we already proposed closing loopholes so, for economic growth.  There's a bipartisan consensus that the best way on tax policy for growth is to lower tax rates by closing loopholes and doing our entitlement reforms in a gradual way so we can save these health and retirement programs.  The president's plan, however, does the opposite.  He's got massive tax hikes, massive debt increases which threatens our economic security.  It leads to rationing Medicare, which threatens our health and retirement security.  And his budget hollows out our national defense, which threatens our national security.  And so I would simply say...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  David, David, if I could respond to that.

REP. RYAN:  ...that we, we are, we are with this bipartisan consensus and the president's not.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Thirty seconds there, Congressman.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Dave, Dave, well, well, look, David, Paul's talking about tax reform but not the way the bipartisan commissions have.  We all want tax reform, it's just the Republicans don't want one penny of tax reform to go toward deficit reduction.  And if you don't do that, it means you do have to whack seniors on Medicare.  It means you have to cut deeply into critical investments in our national infrastructure, in education, in science and research.  That's why every bipartisan group that has approached this has taken the balanced approach, not the approach that asks middle income Americans and seniors to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  And that's what this debate it all about.

MR. GREGORY:  And...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Whether you want a balanced approach or a one-sided approach that the Republicans have put forward.

MR. GREGORY:  And, and we are going to...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  It's not whether we reduce the deficit.  It's how.

MR. GREGORY:  We're going to leave it there.  And just to prove the point to both of you, see, on MEET THE PRESS, we can talk social issues, we can talk faith, and we can also talk about the budget and the economy.  See, we can do it all.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  You did.

MR. GREGORY:  I think you both very much.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  And coming up, the Republican race for the White House rolls into Michigan, a must win for Mitt Romney.  So what happens were he to lose? Plus, the social issue that won't go away, does it help or hurt Republicans as they try to retake the White House?  Our political roundtable's going to come up next.  Foreign RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, Bloomberg's Al Hunt, Helene Cooper of The New York Times, and our own Andrea Mitchell, right after this break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Coming up, our political roundtable.  Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum prepare to face off in Michigan.  Our political roundtable is going to break down the state of the race.  Joining me, Ed Gillespie, Al Hunt, Helene Cooper and Andrea Mitchell.  They're all here.  They're all ready. After this brief commercial break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And we're back with our political roundtable.  Joining me, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and host of "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on MSNBC, the always hard working NBC's Andrea Mitchell; Republican strategist, former chair of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie; and executive editor for Bloomberg News, Al Hunt.

Welcome to all of you.

Al, we don't see you enough.  Glad to have you here.  I love reading how incisive you've been about this campaign.

And I want to talk, Andrea, I want to start with you with a big theme in this race so far.  And Politico, I thought, captured the headline here with this theme, "2012:  The year of `birth control moms'?" Is, I thought we were talking about the economy.  And Paul Ryan...

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL:  And the...

MR. GREGORY:  ...wants to talk more about the economy, but the reality is, in the Republican race, social issues seem to be energizing the base and fueling Rick Santorum.

MS. MITCHELL:  And the question is whether this is going to energize the base and help him win the primaries and perhaps go on to the nomination, although that is being hotly debated among Republican leaders, or whether this is really going to debilitate the Republican Party when they need in a general election to go up against Barack Obama and win independents, win suburban moms in both parties and women who generally accept birth control.

MR. GREGORY:  This aspirin business, Foster Friess, who's a Santorum supporter, said to you on your program that the best means of birth control is putting a Bayer aspirin between your legs, which is kind of an old joke.

MS. MITCHELL:  Yes.

MR. GREGORY:  He said a bad joke.  Rick Santorum said it was a bad joke, distanced himself, and yet it sort of leads to that headline.  And it leads to this, Ed Gillespie, which is a fundraising letter by the head of the Democratic Committee--senatorial re-election committee, Patty Murray, who wrote this based on that and also that all-male image of that contraception hearing.  "I feel," she wrote, that "I woke up this morning on the set of `Mad Men.' Republicans have set their time machine for the 1950s--back when, according to one prominent Republican," aforementioned, "women could just `put aspirin between their knees' to avoid getting pregnant.  This after Republicans opened a hearing on birth control--and banned women from testifying!  We've already accumulated 65,000 signatures on our petition opposing their Aspirin Agenda.  But I'm too mad to stop at `opposing.' It's time we punished the people responsible by taking away their jobs." How do you see this?

MR. ED GILLESPIE:  I see this as a discussion of religious freedom and an incredible unprecedented trampling of that and I think that's how most Americans are going to see it by the election time.  This is a distraction. This is not about birth control.  No one's talking about banning birth control.  This is about whether or not a church and members of a church in an archdiocese like Washington, D.C., where we are here today, can be compelled to pay for something, abortion and sterilization and yes, contraception--should be compelled to pay for something they believe to be morally wrong and in fact a sin.  That is the, that is the issue at hand and I believe at the end of the day, this is going to cost President Obama a lot of votes in some critically important swing areas with Catholic voters.  It's also reminded people of the perils of the ObamaCare bill itself and all the hidden perils there.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GILLESPIE:  And lastly, his response to it was really rather arrogant. The fact is, when the bishops oppose you and are on the opposite side and then you come forward with something and say it's a compromise and they haven't agreed to it, that's not a compromise.  A compromise is when we disagree on something and then come to an agreement.  I think it's going to be very costly.  In fact, I think it'll probably cost him three states in the general election.

MR. GREGORY:  Al Hunt?

MR. AL HUNT:  I don't quite agree with Ed on that.  I think they handled it really badly.  I think they couldn't have handled it worse, but I think they've, they've recovered to a degree and I don't think it'll be a dominant issue in the, in the general election.  I think Republicans need to get back to the economy.  That's the issue that people care about, that's the issue that suburban independent women care about.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. HUNT:  It's not this issue.  I think to the extent Republicans focus and most are not, by the way, David, but to the extent that the debate is dominated by the social issues, I think that will be injurious to Republicans.

MR. GREGORY:  But you know, it's interesting, Helene, because again, we, we know how many Americans are feeling the economy and feeling it in a huge way in their lives and there may be signs of economic improvement.  But as I mentioned, you know, gay marriage has been a big story this week between what's happening in Maryland and the bill that was vetoed by Chris Christie in New Jersey.  The debate about contraception.  It's not just on the presidential campaign trail, it is on Capitol Hill as well, that this is a party that wants to have this conversation.  Inside the White House that you cover, do they say privately, hey, this is going to help?

MS. HELENE COOPER:  They absolutely think that the more that this issue gets discussed, the better off that they are.  President Obama, I mean, Al is completely right that they mishandled it from the start.  But now that they've come--now that President Obama has come out with his compromise, they think that basically the Republicans are overreaching.  And this is something that they talk a lot about, about the Republican propensity to overreach.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  The White House wants to discuss this, frame this issue as one of contraception and that's what the Democrats want to do.  You'll hear the Republicans, you heard Mr.  Gillespie just now, you heard Paul Ryan just a few minutes ago...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  ...wanting to frame this as an issue of religious freedom.  At the end of the day, the White House thinks that this is something that's going to galvanize the women.  It's going to further alienate and drive the Republican candidates so far to the right that they'll even more alienate women and that they, at the end of the day, will be better off.

MR. GREGORY:  I mean, also it takes on, Andrea, this role, too, I mean, where I mentioned this at the top of the program, Rick Santorum talking about a phony theology for President Obama?

MS. MITCHELL:  I was going to raise that point because Rick Santorum, when he sticks to the economy, as he did in his speech that should've been a victory speech in Iowa but actually was one of his best speeches and in some of his earlier appearances in New Hampshire, is a really strong candidate for those Rust Belt states and for the Republican Party for a general election.  But when Rick Santorum talks about theology and takes that shot at the president, which many people believe, including I think some moderate Republicans in those states, think crosses a line.  And when Rick Santorum, when you go through his record and some Republican leaders are concerned because he did say that he doesn't believe that birth control is appropriate.  I mean, there is a track record there.  And so every time he veers into these social issues, I don't think it's useful for him to energize the base.  I think the base is willing to be energized because they're so cool to Mitt Romney.  I think it really hurts the Republican Party.

MS. COOPER:  I think we should also be too careful about defining Catholics as monolithic.  They're not.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  There's a difference between the Catholic bishops, there's a difference between the nuns, there's a difference between these--and there's this whole population of Catholic women out there who are very conflicted, as well, about the church.  So I think when we start talking about losing Catholic voters, we should be very careful about that.

MR. GREGORY:  What about this overall dynamic?  Well, do you want to just respond to that point?

MR. GILLESPIE:  Yeah.  I think Paul Ryan made a good point.  The, the bishops set doctrine in terms of what is the, you know, where the Catholic faith is in this country, and yes, there are people who don't practice what they--what the teachings of the church are relative when it comes to contraception.  That's different from having a federal government tell a church, here's what you must do in violation of your principles and of your teachings.  And so I think that as the further this goes, actually, the longer because I think the president has benefited from muddying the water last Friday with the compromise, which was not really a compromise at all.  And I think the longer it goes and the greater clarity that's injected into this debate, actually the worse off it is for him and I think you'll see a big drop-off with Catholic voters in the general election and I'm willing to make a wager on that.

MR. GREGORY:  Al, does this, does this say something about the dynamic on the Republican side?  We'll show you what's going on in Michigan and here's the polling.  It is Santorum with an edge in that state, which is probably more socially conservative than it's all been given credit for in a Republican primary, even though it's in an open primary.  Romney's at 30 percent.  And Mike Murphy, who is on this program so often, is a contributor to our roundtable and who advised Governor Romney, wrote something that caught my eye in his column in Time magazine.  I'll put it up on the screen.  "Can Mr. Fix-It Fix Himself?  Unfortunately for Romney, Republican-primary voters looks at Washington and do not want a skilled repairman.  They want a TNT-wielding demolition team.  And this voter fury is not at work just in the GOP's grass roots.  Romney now finds himself trapped between two big political trends: the rise of rich-bashing class warfare in national politics and a Republican electorate more interested in ferocious passion than cool intellect.  Welcome to the riot primary."

MR. HUNT:  Wow.  I think that puts it well and Michigan is--it's--he's the army of the Potomac and it's Gettysburg.  It's the fourth game of the series and he's down 2-to-1.  He cannot lose Michigan.  If he loses Michigan, he's likely to lose Ohio the next week, which has more delegates than Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina put together.  So it's really perilous for him. And you look at that, that exit poll from last time and I'm not sure how much it'll change, but 30 percent of those voters in Michigan are Catholic. There's this time a big tea party group out there.  Two things to watch this week, David, which I think are critical for Governor Romney:  What kind of an attack will they mount against Senator Santorum, both the super PAC and Governor Romney?  I don't think earmarks, that's not Freddie Mac.  I don't think it--it just doesn't resonate.  And secondly, he's giving an important speech on Thursday before the Detroit Economic Club.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. HUNT:  Will it be just a mere reprise of what he said before or will there be something bold and radical and new?  He may now need the latter.

MR. GREGORY:  Ed, a Republican said to me this week that he feared that if you asked Mitt Romney privately why he's running, it would be much more of a technocratic response rather than, you know, what Santorum says on the stump, passion-fueled, a set of beliefs with which he wants to run the country.  What do you say?

MR. GILLESPIE:  Well, I think it's both.  I think if you look at Governor Romney's speeches, he talks a lot about the need for economic growth and upward mobility, and--but at the same time, he's running on a rationale of, you know, successful businessman...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GILLESPIE:  ...which is a little bit more technocratic.  And so I think he's trying to do both, but I think that Santorum, obviously, taps into a, a, you know, a more gut level response from Republicans at a time when that's, you know, there's a, there's a demand for that.

MR. GREGORY:  And gut level response, Andrea, this was Mitt Romney, who clearly has been trying to, A, you know, talk about how he's a severe conservative and definitely conservative, but he's also been trying to, to shoot from the gut a little bit more, speak from the heart.  Here was one example where he, he waxed on about why he loves Michigan.  Watch.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA):  I was born and raised here.  I love this state.  Its seems right here.  The trees are the right height.  I like, I like seeing the, I like seeing the lakes.  I love the lakes.  Just something very special here.  The Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the, the parts of Michigan.  I love cars.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  I mean, I just don't...

MS. MITCHELL:  (Unintelligible)

MR. GREGORY:  Did he--I mean, did he forget what the next paragraph of the speech was?  Or what was that?

MS. MITCHELL:  (Unintelligible)...Pacific Coast Highway, that sort of whole reference, you know, it just...

MR. GREGORY:  No, but I mean, that was, in other words, it looks forced.

MS. MITCHELL:  It looks forced.  It's not authentic.  It's not passionate in, in a really natural way.  And that's the great edge that Santorum has over Mitt Romney here.  And that's why this thing is still open because, and I agree with Al and the rest of you all in talking to Republican leaders, if he loses Michigan, he then is at risk in Ohio.  And he is then in terrible jeopardy and I think party leaders start getting together, not a brokered convention, because nobody's going to decide this, but you will go into Tampa at the convention without anyone having a majority conceivably and then you have a contested convention and on the second ballot, Katy bar the door.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, let's come back and talk...

MR. HUNT:  Can I say quickly?

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah, sure.

MR. HUNT:  He also said he was a Tigers fan.  He said, "I remember one time concerning that guy at the next box." That's not exactly the common touch.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, I want to talk more about this and talk more about the what-if scenarios were Romney to lose Michigan when we come back with our roundtable right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We're back with more of our roundtable.  And I want to talk about what-if scenarios as we talk about Michigan.  Should Romney lose what would it happen?  Would there be a renewed call for someone else to get into the Republican primary fight?  I asked Paul Ryan that question earlier on in the program.  Here's what he said.

(Videotape, earlier this morning)

REP. RYAN:  I don't see how that could happen, it's just too late, I think. And first of all, it's February.  These things have a way of taking time.  I assume this, this is going to drag out well into April, so we'll be relevant here in Wisconsin.  And I just--I have a hard time seeing how anybody could get in at this late date.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Ed Gillespie:

MR. GILLESPIE:  Well, as you know, David, you know, back in December on this show I said we were looking at a long primary because of the process and that's the case now.  I do think that on the Republican side there, there may be more demand than there is supply in terms of the candidates, but that's the nature of the process.  And we're not used to these long processes on the Republican side.  I think there's an appetite to kind of wrap it up and get on to, you know, challenging President Obama.  But I, I, I think that Paul raised a good point, when you look at the calendar and the filing deadlines and things like that...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MR. GILLESPIE:  ...it's, it's getting late for someone else to get in.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's just put up the calendar to remind our viewers...

MR. GILLESPIE:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  ...about what's coming next.  We don't talk a lot about Arizona, assuming that it's a Romney stronghold.  But you're got that coming up on the 28th.  Then Washington state.  So Super Tuesday is big, obviously, throughout the South and even the mid-Atlantic with, with Virginia as we look at the calendar.

Helene Cooper, one thing that I keep hearing as I walk up to people, or they walk up to me, is they say it's still about the anti-Romney.  It's not pro-Santorum or pro-somebody else.  It's what's the problem with Mitt Romney?

MS. COOPER:  I think you're looking at a Republican Party that's very dissatisfied with their no longer presumed front, front, front-runner and that's, that's sort of the issue that Mitt Romney has been having, you know, over the last few months.  It's always this, this constant auditioning of the next, you know, the anti-Mitt.  And that's, that's certainly a problem.  And when you look at--I was traveling this past week with President Obama throughout the West Coast and if I had a dollar for every time he said some said--have said let Detroit go bankrupt, it's almost as if the White House is trying to put--they're definitely tried to put--trying to put their finger on the scale to make sure that Romney--Mitt Romney loses in Michigan because he is the one that President Obama at the end of the day most does not want to run against.

MR. HUNT:  Or...

MS. COOPER:  He thinks he would crush Santorum or Gingrich.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  He thinks he could possibly beat--he thinks he could beat, beat Romney, but he thinks he would crush the other two.

MS. MITCHELL:  But if you look at the calendar and the way the Republican Party has changed the way delegates are selected this year, the earliest that Mitt Romney could nail the majority of delegates needed to go into the convention would be either June 5th or June 26th.  The Wall Street Journal added it up yesterday and depending on Texas courts decide when the Texas primary would be, it would be the end of June if he wins every single race with 49 percent of the vote from now through June.  He could not nail it until the end of June.  So we're going to be in this, this mode for quite some time, which opens all these questions.

MR. HUNT:  I think that piece was misleading because if he wins Michigan, he wins Ohio, he wins most of Super Tuesday he's not close to the 1170 he needs, but he's on his way.

MS. MITCHELL:  Yes.

MR. HUNT:  He's got the so-called big mo.  And I think, I think Ed's absolutely right.  There will be--if he loses Michigan there's going to be panic in the Republican establishment.  They're going to look for this, this magical figure to come in and it doesn't exist.  Jeb Bush would look like, yeah, he's a perfect fit.  I am told he definitely does not want to run this time.  Chris Christie, God, he's compelling, but it takes a while to get used to New Jersey.  He said he wasn't ready for it.  Mitch Daniels, social conservatives don't like him.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. HUNT:  Paul Ryan, he's just a fabulous talent, but he's like a high major--high minor league player.  You're, you're kind of rushing him too soon. There is no natural savior.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think Rick Santorum is a potential nominee, really?

MR. GILLESPIE:  Sure.  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.  Could he be more dangerous against Obama than Mitt Romney?  I mean, that's how primary voters will start to look at it.

MR. GILLESPIE:  You know, David, conventional wisdom has been turned on its head repeatedly...

MR. GREGORY:  Admittedly so.

MR. GILLESPIE:  ...in this election year.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MR. GILLESPIE:  And, you know, I'm always, having been in the business for a while, understanding be careful what you wish for.  And, you know, if I were President Obama I'm not sure I'd wish for Rick Santorum.  I think that that may turn out to be, you know, trouble for him.  But, look, the voters will sort this out.  I think what we're seeing right now, like we saw in the Democratic side in 2008, is a vigorous contest that's forcing our--whomever emerges to be a better nominee against the president.  And at the end of the day this is all about the president and his record and the economy and...

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let's...

MS. MITCHELL:  If one of the two of them?  Santorum or Romney?

MR. GILLESPIE:  I mean, you know, again, with the caveat about conventional wisdom it increasingly looks that way.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MR. GILLESPIE:  That it's coming down to those two.  At the same time, you know, Gingrich is going to stay in for clearly, for a long time, take another shot.  Maybe he can rise a third time.  Ron Paul has a stable base of support inside the Republican primary process, so...

MR. GREGORY:  And Gingrich is getting another $10 million from his super PAC from, from Adelson out in Vegas.

MR. GILLESPIE:  Can't hurt.

MR. GREGORY:  Right, it doesn't--it can't hurt.

Let's talk about the president's record for a minute, Helene, because this is interesting.  Here's the numbers out of Michigan, which we're talking so much about and that's the unemployment rate.  If you go back to September of 2009, a mind-boggling 14.3 percent.  It's not 9.3 percent, which, by the way, is still, oh, my gosh, high.  I mean, it's above the national average.  The president, as we said in the open here, is talking about manufacturing coming back, that the auto bailouts worked.  And I see this bumper sticker, right, that we've heard everybody talk about, which is, "GM's back on top, and Osama bin Laden is dead." I mean, that's the record that this president wants to run on.

MS. COOPER:  That's absolutely the record that he wants to run on.  He's gotten a big boost in the last few weeks with the, the national unemployment numbers that have come out that were far, far better than anybody expected. But at the same time, he's still remarkably challenged in that there's a lot of stuff happening around the world that could affect the economy in the months going forward.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  You have Europe and the European debt crisis which the White House is enormously worried about.

MR. GREGORY:  But they don't talk about it.

MS. COOPER:  President Obama's still--they don't talk about it.

MR. GREGORY:  He just doesn't talk about it.

MS. COOPER:  He talks about it behind closed doors.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  And he said in answer in a fundraiser some people asked him, you know, what are you most worried about right now...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  ...and he said Europe, because that's something that the he--that the U.S. has no control over, and that could really bring our unemployment rate, send it back up again.  You have this Iran situation that's developing right now.  That could really affect oil prices, and oil prices are something that the Republicans right now are looking at something that they can run on in the, in the months coming up.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  Gas prices are going up.

MS. COOPER:  So while...

MS. MITCHELL:  You know...

MS. COOPER:  ...things were in a little bit of a lull right now, and things are looking a little, you know, not too bad for President Obama on the economy, and he certainly wants to run on manufacturing.  He wants to run on the, the, what he's done so far to sort of stay the crisis.  But I think, you know, I don't think, I don't think--I think we may still have some problems going ahead.

MS. MITCHELL:  Speaker Boehner was pointing out to the caucus about gas prices.  A few blocks from here yesterday, $5.17 a gallon.  Admittedly full serve, you know, supreme, but that is such a bad signal.  There's already a premium in gas, in oil and gas prices because of concerns about what Iran might do and what Israel might do.

MR. GREGORY:  Do they drive your car for you at that price?  I mean...

MS. MITCHELL:  They wash it, do the tires.

MR. GILLESPIE:  The gas prices have nearly doubled since the president took office.  And in terms of the unemployment rate, look, I'm glad to see it come down.  I'm glad that we created jobs last month.  I hope we continue to create jobs.  But let's not forget, the labor force participation rate has dropped a full 2 percentage points since President Obama took office.  That means five million Americans have left the labor force.  That's why the unemployment rate is coming down.  And, and the fact is, if we continue to help create jobs, as I hope we do, they're going to come back into the labor force looking for work, and then they'll be counted as part of the unemployment rate.  So it's going to be very difficult for the president to get the, the rate down below 8 percent between now and November, and that will be a very difficult environment in which to get re-elected.

MR. GREGORY:  Another quick break here.  We'll come back, Al.  We'll look at our final thoughts, but also at the top political stories trending this morning, right after this short break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Final moments with our, our roundtable.  We keeping Al as we come back on the shot.  He's there, you know, the head shot right there.

Anyway, I want to go to our political trend tracker here.  We've talked about this, the Santorum attack on Obama over faith; Romney and the Olympics, this issue about earmarks to help support the Olympics back in 2002; and Ron Paul and the Maine caucus, didn't quite overtake it but these caucuses have been a problem.  In Iowa and Maine, Romney still appears to be the winner in rain--in Maine, excuse-e--excuse me.

Al Hunt, back on Obama, some thoughts.

MR. HUNT:  Yeah.  To steal a line from Ann Richards, politically I think Barack Obama was born on third base in this season and he thinks he hit a triple.  I mean, they have benefited because the jobless and unemployment numbers have been good.  A lot of Democrats worry that could be a paretic spring, it could head back up again.  But they really benefited because the Republicans, both in the presidential level and the congressional level, have wreaked havoc on the brand name.  They could recover from that, but that's why Obama's doing so well, not because of anything he's done.

MR. GREGORY:  And the case against him will boil down to what, especially in light of some economic recovery?

MR. GILLESPIE:  I think it's first principles.  I think the president has, you know, has said he wants to transform the country.  He's doing that.  He's transforming it in a way that's bad, making us look more like Greece, and the debt, you know, going up, you know, $4.6 trillion I think at this point.  He said he was going to cut the deficit in half, clearly he hasn't.  The unemployment rate, like I say, while getting better, is not good and it's not likely to be below 8 percent before next November, and it's a result of his policies.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.  Quick, 20 seconds left, Helene, I want to just pay tribute to Anthony Shadid, your colleague at The New York Times.  And we both know this was an inspired and inspiring journalist.

MS. COOPER:  He really was.  I mean, he did things that we all are...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  ...still will be standing back in awe.  And what, what Tyler when Tyler Hicks went--the photographer who brought his body out of, out of Syria it still makes my, my heart, my heart break.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  He's definitely going to be missed.

MR. GREGORY:  He died of an asthma attack while covering the story in Syria and bringing it back to all of us, and he will be remembered and he's in our thoughts and prayers, as is his family.

Before we go here today--thank you all very much--I want to offer a quick programming note.  I sat down and took a break from politics, and I did so with Tony Award-winning signer Brian Stokes Mitchell.  He's in Washington to pay tribute to the legendary jazz icon Duke Ellington during Black History Month, and you can hear his exclusive review, now this is big, of President Obama's and Mitt Romney's singing abilities on the campaign trail.  You can see the entire conversation on our blog, presspass.msnbc.com.

That is all for today.  We're going to be back next week.  If it's Sunday it's MEET THE PRESS.

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