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Video: Forecasting the upcoming primaries

updated 3/11/2012 12:18:32 PM ET 2012-03-11T16:18:32

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday I'll go one-on-one with president hopeful Rick Santorum about the state of the Republican race.  Does he have a winning message and can he ultimately do the delegate math to beat Mitt Romney?

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FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA):  If the governor thinks he's, you know, he's now ordained by God to win then let--then let's just have it out.

MR. GREGORY:  Then previewing the debates of the fall campaign, the social issue vs. the economy.  After a strong jobs report, more than 200,000 jobs created in February, who has the winning prescription for more growth?  With us, Romney supporter and chair of the Republican Governors Association, Virginia's Governor Bob McDonnell, and the head of the Democratic Governors Association, Maryland's Governor Martin O'Malley.

Finally, our political roundtable is here to talk politics and about something else:  civility.  Where has it gone and can it return?  Why the president calls Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh attacked.  He was thinking about his own daughters.

(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way.  And I don't want them attacked for--or called horrible names because they're being good citizens.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  We'll discuss it this morning with the Reverend Al Sharpton, host of MSNBC's "Politics Nation"; Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn; the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne; and The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan.

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

MR. GREGORY:  Good morning.  Another split decision in Republican presidential contests held over the weekend, results showing a big win in Kansas for Rick Santorum.  But Mitt Romney also won the delegate vote in Wyoming's ongoing caucus process and he picked up the majority of delegates in the American territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas, and the Virgin Islands.  So this is how the current delegate count looks.  Romney's ahead at 377, then Santorum and Gingrich.  Ron Paul far behind.  Remember, the magic number to secure the nomination is 1,144.  All of this with 48 hours of campaigning to go until Republicans in the Southern states of Mississippi and Alabama put their mark on this ongoing race for the Republican nomination.

And here with us again this morning from the campaign trail in Mississippi is Rick Santorum.  Senator, welcome back.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  It's great to be back, David.  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Look, you want your shot to go one-on-one with Governor Romney. So what tips the scales to get Newt Gingrich out of the race?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, I don't know.  You'd have to ask him.  I mean, we just going to keep on winning and competing.  You know, ever since Nevada we finished first or second in almost every state.  I think we came close. Congressman Paul and I were sort of tied in a couple of states.  But, you know, we've been, we've been there.  And other than Georgia, Congressman Gingrich has finished even third and fourth and that's--that continued yesterday.  And, you know, eventually this thing is going to sort out and hopefully we'll have strong, strong perform--performances in Mississippi here and in Alabama and I've even sent my daughter out to Hawaii.  I know it was tough duty, but she did it and she's out there campaigning for us for this Tuesday.

MR. GREGORY:  If you can blank him down in Alabama and Mississippi would you like to see him get out at that point?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, you know, David, I'd like everybody to get out. I mean, that'd be great if they could just clear the field.  But, you know, Congressman Gingrich can stay in, the speaker can stay in as long as, as long as he wants.  But I think the, the better opportunity to, to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to, is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with, with Governor Romney at some point and hopefully that, that will occur sooner rather than later, but we'll wait and see what the speaker decides.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let's talk about Governor Romney.  He's making the argument that the math is essentially the momentum.  Our own political unit did some of that map and figured that you need 61 percent of the remaining delegates ultimately to win this thing.  Aside from the fact that nobody has the, the requisite number of delegates yet, why shouldn't this race effectively be considered over and done with, advantage Romney?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, Romney needs about 50 percent of the delegates to be able--and if he--you know, on the current track that we're on right now the fact is if Governor Romney doesn't get to that number.  So the idea that you just make projections.  I mean, this isn't a mathematical formula.  This race has a tremendous amount of dynamics and, you know, we've got a lot of states coming up that are great--they're going to be great states for us.  States like Pennsylvania where, you know, we got 72 delegates that we should win if not all of them, the vast majority of them.  Texas.  Last poll in Texas had me up 30 points.  You know, we're, we're doing very, very well in a lot of the states.

People will remember that Governor Romney's been doing this for four years and he worked very hard to make sure that states moved up that were very advantageous to him.  That's A.  B, there are a lot of these states that as you know, David, the news agency apportion delegates that have nothing to do with the reality of where the delegates are going to be.  I'll give you Iowa, for example.  You know, we barely won Iowa by 34 votes, but they had their conventions yesterday.  We're going to win the vast majority of delegates in the state of Iowa, but nobody has that in their count.  They have us winning by one vote.  That's not going to be the case when the delegates from these caucuses are actually elected.  These numbers are going to change dramatically.  And as you also know, a lot of these delegates are uncommitted.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  And so while they may have be--you know, they may be, you know, for quote--the state may be for Romney, a lot of these delegates go in and they're unbound.  And that's another dynamic.  You have a whole bunch of superdelegates.  Again, Governor Romney has secured several of them, but they're not bound with their, with their commitment.  These are the kinds of things that happen when they can change as the dynamic of this race changes as we go on.

MR. GREGORY:  But if you look at the map so far, where the victories have been, you have to notice something that's striking.  You're in green on this map, or rather in yellow on this map.  You're winning kind of the heartland of the country right now.  It's almost like a presidential red/blue map.  You've got Governor Romney winning the coasts, New England, and he's winning the West with the help of Mormon voters.  How do you change that dynamic, including the fact that Governor Romney can say, rightly, "Look, I've won some of the biggest battlegrounds for the fall, Florida and Ohio." How do you overcome that?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, I mean, you know, obviously, you know, we've had, we've had to overcome a lot, David, just to be where we are now.  I mean, we've been outspent about 10-to-1 and that's fine.  But it--in someone who's outspent 10-to-1 who was--has all the establishment behind him, you know, is, you know, all this, quote, wind to his back, yet he can't close the deal, you know, winning Ohio, winning Michigan by the skin of his teeth, both being outspent overwhelmingly, but you know what?  That's OK, we've got the grassroots support.  We have--we, you know, we--we've been slowly crawling out way back--clawing our way back into this race and, you know, we're in a--we're in a great position right now as we go forward with states that are very favorable to us, in, in favorable areas of the country.  I've got my home state yet to go.  I mean, Governor Romney's had about three of his home states already.  So it's, it's important for us to, to look to the future and see the opportunities we have.  That's how we get, we get, we get back in this race. And if we can get a one-on-one.  We've seen in the states where we've had one-on-ones we've done very well.

MR. GREGORY:  So why not just out and say what your super PAC said, and that is that you want Gingrich out?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, you know, that's not, that's not my--I'm not going to tell people to get in and out of this--I didn't ask Speaker Gingrich to get in, I'm not going to ask him to get out.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let's talk about some of the issues and I want to start with jobs.  New jobs numbers out on Friday.  Certainly an advantage for the president who's making the case about economic recovery.  This is how the AP put it in its analysis of the report.  "The United States added 227,000 jobs in February, again surprising economists with the breadth and brawn of the economic recovery.  The country has put together the strongest three months of pure job growth since the Great Recession." And this is those numbers.  If you take a look since December of job creation, the pure number of jobs, it's at 734,000 jobs.  Is your point in this campaign to say "I can do a better job of accelerating that recovery," and if so, how?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, absolutely we can do a better job.  I mean, just, just look on the energy sector alone, the jobs that can be created by, you know, building the Keystone pipeline, for allowing for exploration of, off oil in this country.  And there's 600 billion barrels of oil offshore that this president has basically has said no to.  The federal lands, no; Alaska, no.  I mean, the only place he's allowing drilling and providing help is to Brazil, which of course the Brazilians rejected.  So this is, this is a no energy policy on this president's part.  And, of course, it's having--it's going to have headwinds as we head into the summer driving season.  We're already looking at $4 a gallon gasoline in a lot of places.  And that has without question an impact on this economy.  So you look at the--just energy alone, throw on top of that the implementation of Obamacare and regulations and other types of high-cost regulations, this president has set a record in the number of high-cost regulations.

What I've said on day one, I'll repeal every one of those regulations that cost of $100 million.  The House of Representatives said repeatedly week after week trying to repeal a lot of these regulations that are damaging business and will over the long haul.  So there's a variety of things that the president is doing right now to hurt the economy that we could immediately turn around and put a lot of wind at the back of this economy and see real dynamic growth and sustainable growth.  I think most of the economists will tell you that the growth that--under this president, while it's been good certainly the last three, three months from the standpoint of employment, but the over--underlying growth numbers...  are not going to support a dramatic job growth...

MR. GREGORY:  But...

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  ...until we get that underlying growth number turned around.

MR. GREGORY:  But Senator, you can't tell Americans who are feeling more economic--more optimistic, I should say, about their economic prospects if their eyes are deceiving them.  And when it comes to gas prices, sure, that hurts everybody.  But also Americans know that it's Republicans, just like Democrats, who have failed to provide the leadership to get any kind of energy plan for this country passed and that's been going on for decades.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, David, you know, as someone who's been voting to open up a lot of areas for exploration and have been repeatedly stopped by the radical environmental movement, now led by President Obama, it's, you know, it's, it's hard to point the finger at Republicans.  Republicans have voted yes, yes, yes all the time and certainly I have and the president has voted no.  So the idea of, well, you can't fix the partisan gridlock.  There's not partisan gridlock.  There's a radical ideology of environmentalism that says let's drill for oil in Saudi Arabia, let's drill for it in Brazil, but don't drill for it in my backyard.  This is, this is pure politics.  It has nothing to do with what's best for the overall environment.  It certainly has nothing to do with the national security of our country by being more dependant upon very dangerous areas of the world that allow the speculative price for oil to go up.  All of this is the president's fault.  It lays clearly on his table.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you as well about some other issues and when you take on Governor Romney.  You know, your record, which has been debated as senator, you cast votes, of course, for a new entitlement under Medicare, prescription drug benefit.  You were a supporter of earmarks, which a lot of people think is reckless spending of federal money.  You, you supported No Child Left Behind, an expansion of accountability in national education reform movement, and yet you say this about Governor Romney.  You said it during a conference call this week.  I'll put it on the screen.  "What you have with Governor Romney is someone who is simply not the genuine article.  He's not someone you can trust on the issue of big government." Yet you cast some votes that conservatives would clearly see as big government.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, I would just say this about, about the programs that you put forward.  The--all of those programs were--certainly the earmark, were within the context of spending on appropriation bills where I never, ever voted for an increase in spending on any of those appropriation bills.  In fact, I was out on the floor castigating Republicans and Democrats who were voting for increase in spending.  So I voted always to cut spending, repeatedly, consistently, throughout my 16 years.

On Medicare prescription drugs, there were a lot of things in that Medicare prescription drugs, especially health savings accounts, which is a private sector reform of the healthcare system, which I believe was the most dynamic thing we could do.  And I still believe it's the most dynamic thing we can do to help lower healthcare costs and put patients back in control.  We had private sector Medicare reform in that prescription drug bill.  And of course the prescription drug bill itself has come in 42 percent under budget because it's a private sector model.  So while, while certainly there was a Medicare prescription drug benefit, it was done in a way that advanced the private sector medicine and that's one of the reasons that, that I supported it. Unlike Governor Romney, who had public sector control of the healthcare system.  The bills I voted for were private sector-oriented programs.

Governor Romney and Barack Obama are exactly the same place on health care. Romneycare, Obamacare, the same, with a top-down government control of the resources, mandates and of course, now we know, thanks to--you know, an interview that you did and others--that Governor Romney actually advocated for the Massachusetts model that President Obama adopt, with mandates, and then went out on the campaign trail and repeatedly--well, he repeatedly told--didn't tell the truth.  He went out and misled voters that somehow or another he was not for mandates at the federal level when, in fact, he was. He went out and said, "Oh, no, I didn't require Catholic hospitals to provide things that were against their conscience," when, in fact, he did.  He said, "Oh, I didn't provide free abortions under Romneycare," when in fact he did for some.  So he's repeatedly had big government solutions and then gone out and told the public, bald face, that he didn't do the things that he did.

MR. GREGORY:  You're calling him a liar.  You're saying that he's lying about his position, that he doesn't support an individual mandate at the federal level.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Which he did.

MR. GREGORY:  He did support it.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  He did support an individual mandate.  Absolutely and repeatedly in op-eds and on your program.

MR. GREGORY:  You know, electability becomes a big issue if you look at the polling.  Romney is closer to President Obama in the polls now than you are. On health care, what is the line of attack you think that President Obama will use against Romney that you think will ultimately kill Romney's chances of being president?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  You know, why are you complaining about--why do you say you want to repeal a program that's identical to the program you put in place in Massachusetts and you advocated for me to do?  And, and they will play back the clips from MEET THE PRESS.  They will play back the are--the op-eds that he wrote to advocate for this.  And that, that is--that just takes an issue that is the most potent issue in the 2010 election.  The reason Republicans were able to sweep back into the control of the House of Representatives and make gains in the Senate and governorships is because we had an issue that talked about freedom, talked about whether government should be controlling your healthcare choices, should be allocating resources in the healthcare field, or whether we're going to believe in free markets and free people and choices and consumers.  And Governor Romney and the state of Massachusetts mandated every person in Massachusetts to have to buy health care.  He doesn't tell the truth about that, either.  He said, "Oh, it's only the 8 percent that didn't have insurance." That is simply not true.  And he continues to go out there and tries to misrepresent what he did in Massachusetts because it's not popular.

It's what he's doing with climate change.  He was for climate change, man-made global warming.  He put caps on CO2.  And now that it's not popular, now that the climate change--guess who changed the law with it?  Governor Romney.  And well, you're looking at someone here who doesn't change with the climate.  I stand for the principles that made this country great, limited government, free people, building a great society from the bottom up, not Governor Romney's top-down control that will not make the kind of contrast with Barack Obama that we absolutely need if we're going to win this election.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, I want to ask you about the influence of your wife.  I know I'm heavily influenced by mine.  And you've talked about the influence that she's had on you in the course of this campaign.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  Recently, as, as it applies to the kind of language you use, you've backed away a bit from calling the president a snob or, or criticism of President Kennedy.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  What kind of political partner is she for you and how is that manifested itself here in the last couple of weeks?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  She is--she's very direct.  We have a wonderful, very, very special relationship and she is, she, she watches everything I do like a hawk and she is, you know, look, she's a nurse, she's a lawyer, she's--she knows, she knows how to, how to, how to communicate.  And she also is a very, very compassionate person.  And I think she's--she understands that sometimes I can get, I can get fired up, as she can, too.  And you know, get--sometimes step over the line and I think she, she rightly comes after me and says, you know, Rick, you've got to, you've got to go back and walk this back. That's--that, you know, you get a little fired up and you shouldn't say things that, you know, maybe, again, you, you said, you know, calling governor a liar, Romney a liar.  No, I'm not.  I'm saying in this case he didn't, didn't say what was the truth.  But then to go one step further and say that the person is a liar is, is too far and that was the case with respect to President Obama and that comment.  And, you know, she's, she's a very good governor for me.  She, she, she made sure that I try to keep things in perspective.

MR. GREGORY:  What about the broader influences on you?  As people size you up, get to know you a little bit better, what or who would you say is the biggest influence on you in the full range of your public life and your sense of purpose, getting into the race and running for Congress and ultimately the Senate?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah, well, I mean, obviously, you know, family is always a big consideration.  It certainly was in getting into this race. Karen and I, you know, this was not something, you know, I'm 53 years old, I've been in public life for 16 years.  Most of my, you know, working career I was, I was in the Senate.  And you know, to get back into that after being out for five years and having a lot more freedom and opportunity and a lot more time to be with my wife and family.  I coached Little League for three years and was doing a lot more stuff frankly in a public life you just don't have time for.  And, and it was a hard decision for us.  And you know, we prayed about it a lot and you know, sought--you know, was this the right path for us? And we just felt very strongly, and particularly because of this issue of Obamacare and government control of people's lives.  And I just felt like this was a game-changer for America and you know, we have a special needs little girl and that, that weighed both ways, to be very honest with you.  I want to be home with her because her life is so fragile, but at the same time, I felt like you had to go out and fight for these little children who, you know, in the margins of society, in a government-run healthcare system around the world, they aren't given quite the care and resources allocated because, you know, the government may not see them as useful lives.  And so there was a lot of cross currents here and, and Karen and I sort of sorted through and prayed about it and made the decision that it was, that it was appropriate for us to step forward and, and try to, you know, lay out a different vision for this country that we didn't believe anybody else in the race could do.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Senator, before you go, are you looking at a clean sweep, do you think on Tuesday in the South?

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, it's pretty tough battleground down there.  I mean, I'm in Newt's backyard.  And of course, you know, they've got--you know, Mitt, Mitt and the establishment.  We're out there running the insurgent campaign and we feel good.  I mean, all the polls shows us within striking, striking distance and so we're working here in Mississippi.  Karen and I are here today and we'll be in Alabama tomorrow and we're just going to hustle.

MR. GREGORY:  We'll be watching.  As always, thanks for coming on the program.

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  Thank you, David.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  And coming up here, a preview of the debate of the big issues in the fall campaign.  Will social issues trump talk of the economy and job creation?  Two of the nation's top governors weigh in.  Head of the Democratic Governors Association, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and head of the Republican Governors Association, Virginia Governor and Romney supporter Bob McDonnell.  Later, our political roundtable.  Is the country paying a price for the lack of civility in our political dialogue?  That's coming up later.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Coming up, two of the nation's top governors will join me with a preview of the fall campaign.  Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, and Virginia's Governor Bob McDonnell.  Coming up next after this brief commercial break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Joining me now, governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, and governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell.  Welcome to both of you.

GOV. BOB McDONNELL (R-VA):  Thanks, David.

MR. GREGORY:  There is a developing story from overseas this morning that we're tracking this morning.  In Afghanistan, a U.S. service member has apparently open fire on Afghan civilians in a village near a military base in southern Afghanistan.  An AP photographer has reported seeing 15 bodies, including women and children.  Obviously as details develop on this there'll be more.  Governor McDonnell, you have a daughter who served in Iraq.  We know as both a policy matter and a political matter that these kinds of things can really start to shape public opinion about after all the country being at war. What kind of impact do you think this is going to have after the Quran burnings just a couple weeks ago...

GOV. McDONNELL:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  ...and in terms of the national debate?

GOV. McDONNELL:  Well, it's tragic because we have so many brave men and women, David, for now 10-plus years in the global war on terror have done marvelous work for the cause freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. And winning, doing good work.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

GOV. McDONNELL:  And yet one incident like this in the minds of the civilian population who we're trying to win their hearts and minds, as well as the battle against the terrorists in Afghanistan, can change the equation.  So it's too bad and we'll have to see the details.  But I'm really proud of what our kids are doing there.

MR. GREGORY:  Unforeseen circumstances, Governor.  The debate over Iran that's heating up on the campaign trail with the president responding to Republican candidates.  These are some of the unknowns that could really affect this presidential campaign here in the months ahead.

GOV. MARTIN O'MALLEY (D-MD):  Oh, absolutely.  I mean, there are many things that happen in this very tightly and interconnected world of ours that, that no one president can control.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  But what we all look for in the president of the United States is someone with steady, capable leadership, a calm hand at the helm, and President Obama has provided that leadership.  I think this latest incident underscores how important it is for us to conclude our involvement in Afghanistan, as we have in Iraq.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  And I agree with Governor McDonnell.  I mean, so many, so many young men and women are serving so honorably and so well, but incidents like this do happen in war zones, and it's very important we bring our troops home as soon as possible.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's talk about the economy, as well.  You know, it was just about five months ago President Obama said he was an underdog, and now you look at the job numbers and the trajectory of unemployment over the course of the president's term here, the dark days of 2009 and '10, with unemployment up in double digits, 10., 10 percent now.  In 2012 we've seen it holding steady at 8.3 percent.  Over 700,000 jobs created since the end of last year.  Is he now the favorite given the optimism about the economy?

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Well, I, I think that there is more important issue than the good news that we're seeing in our economy.  President Obama, under his leadership, we've had 24 months in a row of positive job creation every month. An auto industry that many thought had gone the way of the dinosaur is now adding 200,000 jobs.  We see foreclosures have been driven down thanks to the president's leadership to the lowest levels we've seen in four years.  So I do believe that the overriding issue in this race is jobs and the economy, and clearly things are getting better and they still need to improve, and we could make it--we need to accelerate our jobs recovery.

MR. GREGORY:  And yet the man you're supporting, Governor McDonnell, is Mitt Romney, who's making the case that he could do a better job with economic growth.  Is the argument going to be more difficult to make if we continue on the path we're on with job creation?

GOV. McDONNELL:  Well, job creation, economic development is the issue in this campaign, and all of us as Americans ought to celebrate the progress that's, that's been made.  And I give the private sector the credit for doing that.  But listen, we've lost 864,000 jobs since the beginning of this administrating.  Eight percent to 9 percent, 10 percent, that may be the best that Barack Obama can do, but that's not as good as Americans really, really need.  This issue, this election is about jobs, economic development, taxes, spending, debt and deficit.  And I think on each of those issues, this president has really failed.  We've added to the national debt by $5 trillion, and the unemployment rate being over 8 percent for the entire Obama presidency, that's not a good record to run on.

MR. GREGORY:  But it's going to become a choice, right?

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  And the question is whether Romney has really broken through with an economic message that says this is a distinctly different path and a more acceptable path for Americans.  You would argue it's not.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  And, you know, what we see, it'll be a choice between two alternatives, and both of these gentlemen now have records.  And when Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, David, a state that by any measure is pretty strong to be, create jobs in a new economy...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  ...instead, under Governor Romney's leadership, they ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation.  So I think you're going to have a pretty clear contrast here.  And if you look at the presidential campaign, I mean, let's be honest, there's been a lot more time spent pandering to the extreme right wing ideologues of the new Republican Party than has been spent talking about jobs and the economy.  Rick Santorum in the Arizona debate mentioned the word jobs not once, not a single time.  So I believe that the president is looking strong, is strong, is focused on the economy, and that's going to carry him through this election.

MR. GREGORY:  Governor?

GOV. McDONNELL:  Well, I think that's a manufactured issue.  I think the Democrats and this president are trying to do everything they can to take the issue off of jobs and the economy, debt, deficit, energy, because they don't have a plan.  I would say that Republican governors have had something to do with that.  The seven out of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates are governed by Republican governors.  But the fact is, David, when you go back to the beginning to the this administration, gas prices have doubled. The number of new proposals for taxes and spending are through the roof in this Obama administration and with Democrat governors.  The number of people that have actually lost a job, over 800,000.  So while we're making some progress, I can't think of a thing that this administration has done other than stimulus spending that would be responsible for that.  I'd say we can do better.  Eight percent, not good enough.  We can do a lot better.  There's 25 million Americans that are underemployed or, or unemployed.  That's not good enough.  Mitt Romney in the private sector created over 100,000 new jobs, showed he could turn the Olympics around.  That's the kind of change that we need.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's talk about social issues because in some cases in the, in the Republican race, this has overshadowed talk about the economy and you, in fact, in Virginia, have been at the center of some of this.  You backed an abortion bill initially that included a very invasive procedure as part of an ultrasound that the state would have required and then you backed off of that. Were you wrong to support that initially or did you simply back off because the political heat got turned up the way it did?

GOV. McDONNELL:  No, I think--listen, that was one bill out of a thousand that we passed that was all focused on jobs and economic development, education, and a number of other things.  That's my agenda is restoring the American dream for people in Virginia.  We've got the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast and surpluses for two years.  That's what I'm doing.  You know, this bill allows Virginia to join about 20 other--23 other states that have an ultrasound procedure.

MR. GREGORY:  It's actually only about seven that have these kind of procedures.

GOV. McDONNELL:  No, but there's 23 that require a, a, a woman to have an opportunity to see an ultrasound.

MR. GREGORY:  But were you wrong?  Were you wrong initially when you said this invasive procedure should be part of the bill?

GOV. McDONNELL:  Well--no, I never said that.

MR. GREGORY:  Or did you only bend in the heat?

GOV. McDONNELL:  No, David, I think you're wrong with the facts.  So what we said simply was that we support the concept of an ultrasound and through the committee process, I realized that there were some other things in the bill that needed to be admitted.  I recommended that to the general assembly, they agreed to it.  And so what I think is going on is the focus on this election is not about that.  When people go into this voting booth in November, David, they're going to look at who's got the best vision to create jobs, who's got the best idea to get us out of debt and this constant focus on social issues is largely coming from the Democrats.  Here's what I'm worried about...

MR. GREGORY:  Well, hold on, I want to stop you there...

GOV. McDONNELL:  ...there's a war on the...

MR. GREGORY:  ...because I'm still, I'm still asking about this issue.  Look, you ran in part talking about health care, the president's healthcare plan.

GOV. McDONNELL:  I ran against it, so.

MR. GREGORY:  You ran against it, precisely.

GOV. McDONNELL:  Yes.

MR. GREGORY:  This was the state of the Virginia mandating women have an additional procedure, a mandated health procedure.  I thought that's exactly what conservatives opposed?

GOV. McDONNELL:  David, this was about stating what informed consent is and saying that women have a right to know certain things before a procedure. Every invasive procedure has an informed consent requirement.  So what I think this is is more of people trying to get the focus off the abysmal record of this administration on jobs and the economy, taxes and spending.  I'm worried about the war of the administration and some Democrat governors on the American taxpayer.  More taxes, more spending, more debt.  Even in Maryland, you've got proposals to increase the sales tax, the gas tax, the tax on cigars, everything else that moves.  This is the issue in the race is who's going to keep taxes low on the American middle class?  And I think that's why we're going to win.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think the sense that certainly Democrats are talking about and that some women feel that there is a growing assault on reproductive rights, can it become a more central issue in the race?  Or is that going to become a side issue, as the governor says?

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Well, I think the central issue in this race is creating jobs and expanding opportunity.  I think these cultural--don't like to use the term wars--these cultural divisive wedge issues, these sort of roll back of women's rights, roll back of women's access to contraception and other health, roll back of voting rights, roll back of workers rights, all of these things that take us back are not strengthening our economy and creating jobs.  And I think that people start to see a pattern, David, emerging in states like Wisconsin, states like Ohio, states like Florida.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  And sadly, recently even in Virginia, where these cultural issues are crowding out the things that really should concern us most.

GOV. McDONNELL:  But, David, I would say...

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Seven, seven out of 10--seven out of the best 10 states for creating 21st century jobs in science and technology, are governed by Democratic governors.  Now Virginia, credit where credit is due, is one of those top states.  The question is whether we're making the right investments in jobs, education, more affordable college, that will keep Virginia in that top ranking in the future.  Maryland's there.  We're making college more affordable, we're creating jobs at twice the rate of Virginia.  And these cultural battles that drive people apart are not helpful to driving us forward.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think your counterpart here in Virginia would be a good running mate for Romney or would you cast him as an extremist?

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Well, I think if you, if you look simply...

GOV. McDONNELL:  This is your chance, Martin.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Governor, if you look simply at job creation, now while Maryland's had a better rate of job creation than Virginia...

GOV. McDONNELL:  Martin, that's just not true.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  ...the truth is Virginia...

GOV. McDONNELL:  PolitiFact has said that's false.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  ...Virginia ranks far higher than Massachusetts did under Mitt Romney.  So for that reason...

MR. GREGORY:  But would he...

GOV. O'MALLEY:  ...I think Governor McDonnell would be a, actually a better job creator than Mitt Romney was.

GOV. McDONNELL:  Thanks for that endorsement.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think he should be on the ticket?  Do you think he'd be formidable?

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Oh, I don't know.  I think he's--I think he's a very skilled leader and he does an able job as the head of the Republican Governors Association.

MR. GREGORY:  Governor, would you like to be president?

GOV. McDONNELL:  No.  I got the job held by Jefferson and Henry, I love being the governor of Virginia.  But what I do want is a Republican president who can get us out of this malaise.  We've gone from hope and change to division and malaise, that's what we've got over these last three years.  So what I do want, though, is a President Romney who will have a vision on jobs...

MR. GREGORY:  Could you be a help to him on the ticket?

GOV. McDONNELL:  Well, I'm going to be.  I've been traveling for him already. Oh, on the ticket?  I'm not--that's for you pundits for decide, David.  I'm just--I could be a help to him, I think, in making sure people see the difference between a President Romney and a President Obama on the things people care about:  jobs, spending and taxes.

MR. GREGORY:  We're going to leave it there.  Governors, thank you very much.

GOV. McDONNELL:  Thanks.

GOV. O'MALLEY:  Thank you, David.

MR. GREGORY:  Nice talking to you.

Coming up, in the wake of the heated rhetoric during the birth control debate, President Obama this week made a plea for civility with his daughters in mind. Where has civility gone in politics and what are the costs, not just to our political debates, but to the country at large.  Plus my key decision questions for 2012.  And for this week, our political roundtable is here: MSNBC's own Reverend Al Sharpton, Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, and The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan.  It's coming up next.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We're back with our political roundtable.  Joining me, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, host of MSNBC's "Politics Nation" and president of the National Action Network, our own Reverend Al Sharpton.

Rev, good to see you.

And Republican Congresswoman of Tennessee Marsha Blackburn.

Welcome to all of you.  Let me start as we, we've heard from Senator Santorum and look at my own key questions I think for the political week as we face them.  Can each of these candidates, Romney and Santorum, expand their appeal? You saw the map.  Can Romney extend it in the South and can Santorum expand it beyond the base of support he's got right now in the party.  For Romney, it seems to me, can he make this delegate math become the momentum, because he's in the middle of a very difficult 10 days on the map in terms of primaries. And for President Obama, what we've been talking about as well, is he going to get credit for an improving economy, or will he be tagged as somebody who's still facing bad numbers and is not recovering the economy quickly enough? That's our backdrop.

Peggy Noonan, start us off.  How do you see this race right now?

MS. PEGGY NOONAN:  I think you still have to say that Mr.  Romney is the one whose fortunes everybody watches because he is still the front-runner.  Others have risen and fallen, they've come and gone.  I think the race is Romney, who has a way of grinding it out and staying, not doing the up and down...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. NOONAN:  ...but just staying and Santorum, who's coming up, who's got a close poll in Illinois and who is holding on and who is trying to break through as the not Romney.  He's trying to make it a two-man race and we'll see where it goes.  The odds are with Romney, but life is interesting.

MR. GREGORY:  Congress--yeah.  Right, forgive me for interrupting.

Congresswoman, if you look you do have this split.  You're a woman of the South, in Tennessee, where Santorum played well.  Romney's trying to get in there.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN):  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  He's got two contests coming up.  But he is losing the heart of the party even though he is still the odds-on favorite.  You do you explain it?

REP. BLACKBURN:  I think that what has happened is this race is really capturing the attention of the American public, Democrats and Republicans, who want to see where the Republican Party is going to shake out.  What people in Tennessee said is, "Look, Newt was the candidate of the tea party, Romney's the candidate of the establishment, and they said we're conservatives, we're not necessarily partisans.  What we want is someone who's going to listen to us.  What we want is somebody who's going to focus on jobs and the economy and listen to us.  And I think people are saying, listen to me, don't yell at me, listen to me.

MR. GREGORY:  Where do you see it?

REV. AL SHARPTON:  I think that Romney's still the probable winner.  But I think that the challenge he has is that he has to deal with the base, he has to deal with those that seem extreme, but at the same time come with a broad enough vision for the American public after the primaries are over, and I think that's the kind of, of delicate balance he's not been able to strike yet.  People are more concerned about jobs and the economy than they are things like the Blunt amendment and all.  So where we get past the rhetoric, heated rhetoric that all of us have engaged in and deal with the broader picture I think is going to be the one that tells the outcome of this election.

MR. GREGORY:  E.J., if there's anything that Romney seems to want is he wants to run as a centrist candidate against President Obama, where he can be quite formidable, but it's getting through these primaries that seems to be the obstacle.

MR. E.J. DIONNE:  Right.  And I think the biggest problem of these primaries for Romney compared to what the primaries did for President Obama four years ago, is Hillary Clinton forced Obama to appeal to white working-class voters and that's where he was weak and he needed them in the general election.  This primary is forcing Mitt Romney to keep going back to the base.  And I think Romney emerges with two problems.  He is the favorite, obviously, though this is such a strange race, the pundits are always wrong week to week, but Romney has two problems.  The staunch conservatives, evangelical Christians, tea partiers, overlapping groups are one of this weaknesses.  That's not the biggest deal, even though this could cause him problems because turnout might be just a little depressed among them and he's going to have to waste some time rallying them when he would prefer to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.  But the bigger problem is the class problem, is that Romney wins these primaries because he wins big among voters earning over 100,000 a year and especially earning over 200,000 a year.  The Republicans to win really need to beat Obama by a big margin in white working-class vote--among white working-class voters.  Frank Bruni in The New York Times this morning says Romney is starting to look like a walking dollar sign and that that's what he's got to stop.  And right now Obama's doing well enough in the white working-class vote to win.  But it is only March.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me talk about something bigger, as I've been alluding to throughout the program.  We had this moment this week, the president at the press conference walking about why he called Sandra Fluke after Limbaugh had attacked her.  And he was doing it for his daughters, he said.  And it brought up this question of where civility has gone in our public discourse, in our political discourse, in the campaign and in Congress.  Olympia Snowe talked about how polarizing Congress is as the reason she wants to leave.

Reverend, you talked about it when you were down South this week in Montgomery during your march.  This was one of the points you made that had such resonance.  I'll play it.

(Videotape, Friday)

REV. SHARPTON:  We are not each other's enemies, we're not each other's competition, we are not each other's adversary.  If we lock arms like we did coming down Highway 80 and cooperate rather than compete, we can make America work for everybody.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  A Democrat saying that, it could be a Republican as well.  It's a--it's a very important message.  How does it ultimately resonate?

REV. SHARPTON:  I think the problem is that we've got to be mature enough to say we can be passionate and we can have some firm feelings, but that we don't have to poison the atmosphere.  And I learned that in my own development.  I used to say things that I really believed any kind of way I felt them. Ironically, the president mentioned his two daughters.  As my two daughters got older I started worrying about what I was saying because they would question me.  It's not cute to just exacerbate things.  You could be right and do it wrong, or say it wrong.  And I think that that would be the appeal that I would make, that yes, be passionate.  I still march, I still protest, but don't get in the way of your message.  And the ultimate goal should be to bring people together in the country to make progress.  Even if we disagree how, we don't have to be disagreeable.

MR. GREGORY:  But do we as voters celebrate the friction too much?

REP. BLACKBURN:  I think that what we have to remember is what was just said, learn to agreeably disagree, to make your point because when the rhetoric gets too loud it's like I was saying, voters are saying don't yell at me, listen to me, and give me the facts.  They want to be well informed and they're seeking to be well informed.  That's why you've seen the rise of so many grassroots organizations.  And quite frankly, I think it speaks to E.J.'s point of why the pundits are wrong so much now.  Because the American people are going directly to sources, getting their information and they want us to respect them.  And respect that they give us the opportunity to represent them I seek to honor that in everything I do every day.

MR. GREGORY:  You know, I talked to John Lewis, the civil rights leader, recently who said he does think there's something particular, if it's racism, or something else about Obama that brings out a level of hatred.  And let's be clear, there are plenty of pundits and others on the left who use, you know inflammatory and corrosive language.

MS. NOONAN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  Is there something different now, Peggy?

MS. NOONAN:  I'll tell you how I see it.  I think one of the big problems with discourse in America is the way--forget left and right for a second--it's the way women are being spoken of, women in public life, women in politics, women in policy questions.  It seems to me that women who have been rising to positions of authority the past 20 years rose at the same time as the Internet and the Internet was a sort of wild west where anything could be said.  And I think it came on to actually infect our, our entertainment life, our political life, our journalistic life, what is said on radio by commentators and comedians.  And I think somebody has to stop and notice this sounds like a horrible misogynistic war on women.  We have got to stop it.  I feel like the grown-ups have to step in.  I wish the president had had a real Sister Souljah moment and not just called someone with whom he was politically sympathetic, who deserved his sensitivity, but said, "Wait a second, guys, left, right, and center, it's getting horrible for women now.  Let's stop it."

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MR. DIONNE:  You know, when you--I wish Mitt Romney had had a Sister Souljah moment in this case because what Rush Limbaugh said, it wasn't just that he called her awful names, he said she should put sex tapes up to reward us.

MS. NOONAN:  Oh...

MR. DIONNE:  And what kind of--it was wild.  But, you know, the best line on civility was John Kennedy's when he said "civility is not a sign of weakness." And I grew up in a very politically diverse family where we always had arguments all the time.  And I had a dear uncle whom I, I argued with for 35 years.  And when he died his kids asked me to do the eulogy at his funeral and I was really grateful for that.  And in the middle of the eulogy I made a point of quoting Richard Nixon, whom my uncle loved, and I said I did that...

MS. NOONAN:  Don't we all.

MR. DIONNE:  ...because I wanted him to rise out of the casket and tell me, "I knew you'd be quoting Nixon some day." We ought to be able to be passionate and disagree passionately.  And remember, there are people we love who have different views than the ones we have.

REP. BLACKBURN:  Yeah, we debate, though.

MS. NOONAN:  Yes.

REP. BLACKBURN:  See, we're debating with in our families and you do it in that spirit of love and friendship.  And knowing that in--at the end of the day you're never going to really agree, but you're going to celebrate the freedom that you enjoy to have that debate.

REV. SHARPTON:  Well, I think that's where the key is going to be in seeing real leadership.  Because I agree with John Lewis, a lot of this is race.  I certainly agree with Peggy that this anti-woman spirit is out there.  But it doesn't mean that everyone that disagrees with you are either racist or misogynist, or that those that are on the other side are race baiting.  We may disagree on voter ID.  Doesn't make her a race--it doesn't make me a race baiter.  We could disagree on the facts without going there, but we must admit there are some racists and some race baiters.  And I think that's where we have to come together.  That's why right on this show I came with Newt Gingrich on education.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

REV. SHARPTON:  There must be some areas that we can show opposing views can come together for the good of the country.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and it's, it's also the effort to delegitimize the other side.  Whether...

MS. NOONAN:  Yes.

MR. GREGORY:  And that certainly happened to Bush and it's happened to Obama, when we talk about, you know, the freedom being under assault.  I mean, on both sides, this becomes a big component of it.

MS. NOONAN:  Yes.  But respect for women, I think, is the, the biggest thing we have to address at the moment.  Words like slut and whore actually...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. NOONAN:  ...don't belong in any public debate in America.

MR. DIONNE:  And the way we advertise products is so different than the way we advertise politics.  It would be as if somebody said, don't buy their product, it will poison you.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. NOONAN:  That's right.

MR. DIONNE:  We don't do that in the commercial sphere.  We only do it in the political sphere.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let, let me get...

REP. BLACKBURN:  (Unintelligible)...the facts.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me get a quick break in here.  We want to talk more about this and a couple of other matters.  We'll be back with also a look at our top political stories trending this morning, right after this break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We're back.  Final minutes with our roundtable.  I'm looking at our the trend tracker here.  It's on point to our discussion at Santorum winning Kansas, Romney widens his lead among the delegates, and Obama making a big play for women voters, too, as we, as we've been talking about over the last couple of segments.

Reverend Al, I want to go to you.  Something you've been doing this week, the Selma to Montgomery march which you did on Friday to commemorate, of course, the '65 march.  And we went back through our archives, and Dr.  Martin Luther King was on this program back in '65, and at the time former President Truman had called the Selma march a silly idea that wouldn't have much impact, and this is what Dr.  King said here on the program.

(Videotape March 28, 1965)

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.:  Well, first I would say that the march was not silly at all.  I would think that the, the march did more to dramatize the indignities and the injustices that Negro people continue to face in the state of Alabama and many other sections of the South more than anything else.  I think it was the most powerful and dramatic civil rights protest that has ever taken place in the South, South, and I think it well justified the costs that we put in it.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  All these years later, your march.  What was the message today and what's the resonance today?

REV. SHARPTON:  The message is that with the new voter ID laws being proposed in over 30 states, the Brennan Institute says it will disenfranchise five million people.  There has been no established reason to change the laws. There's no widespread fraud that has been in any way documented.  And we do, do not believe that we should have these millions of peoples disenfranchised. This is--has a disproportionate impact on young people, seniors and minorities.  And immigration laws in Alabama are horrendous and we think they violate the civil rights of people.  And we sought to dramatize, not just to commemorate 47 years ago, but to continue today to fight those issues.

MR. GREGORY:  Quickly, Congresswoman, you look down South, Alabama and Mississippi, who gets the advantage there as you see it?

REP. BLACKBURN:  I, I think that the polling is showing that the race between Santorum and Romney is tightening up.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

REP. BLACKBURN:  I think, there again, economy, jobs, number two issue is national security, protecting this great nation, and female voters are going to be about 52 percent of that vote.

MR. GREGORY:  OK.  Interesting.

REP. BLACKBURN:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  We'll be watching.  Thank you all very much, appreciate it.

Before we go, a quick programming note.  You can watch our weekly Press Pass conversation on the blog this week.  It's when Washington and Hollywood collide after the big premiere of "Game Change" on HBO about the 2008 race. We talked to the guys who wrote the book, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. That's presspass.msnbc.com.

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

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