Shields and Lowry on the GOP in Iowa

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - August 12, 2011

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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, reporting from Des Moines, Iowa, tonight, and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is away.

Mark, how did you read last night's debate?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, first of all, Jim, any debate where the front-runner, acknowledged front-runner, if not an electrifying front-runner, Mitt Romney, goes in and comes out of it on the other side unscathed, unharmed, unwounded, has to be a good night for the front-runner.

And the others were just sort of subplots. You could see the obvious tension between Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and that state's former governor, Tim Pawlenty, who are really dueling it out in the Saturday caucuses here. And it could be a survival test for Gov. Pawlenty, who had been regarded quite seriously when he entered this race, and has been eclipsed.

And so -- then you had Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum trying to break through themselves, each with his own distinct style, Gingrich scolding Chris Wallace for daring to ask him about his -- the majority of his staff quitting his campaign. And, finally, you had the introduction of the mystery man, Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former ambassador to China.

So there were a lot of subplots, but I think the main plot is Mitt Romney goes in ahead and comes out ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that overall, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, it's the second debate in a row where Romney has basically skated by untouched.

But the most consequential exchanges for the next couple of days, and then the campaign following were those between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.

And I think what's happened to Tim Pawlenty in this race is very unfortunate. Anyone who has met him will say he is one of the nicest guys you will -- ever met in politics. And I think the best play for him in this campaign would -- to be himself, basically. Be the low-key, slightly self-deprecating guy from the Upper Midwest who has a pretty good record as governor.

Instead, he's been forced in this desperation role, where he's lashing  out at Romney and especially at Bachmann, because Bachmann is stealing his thunder in Iowa. And Pawlenty has his entire campaign now riding on the outcome of the Straw Poll Saturday. If he finishes third, he probably doesn't make it through to the end of the year. So he's got to finish first or second.

And so you saw that last night, with Pawlenty going after her hammer and tongs with a line of attack that could tell over time, saying she doesn't have accomplishments and suggesting she's not that serious a figure. But that's the kind of judgment voters make five days before a real caucus or a real primary. I don't think that's going to work here in the middle of August. And he -- I think a lot of average viewers will think why he's -- why is he being so hard on this nice lady?

JIM LEHRER: So you think he hurt himself?

RICH LOWRY: I think, at the very least, it didn't work, and he may have hurt himself.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, that this was not a good -- that Pawlenty's chosen strategy didn't work, in other words, taking on Bachmann the way he did?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, he tried it -- he tried it round, he tried it flat. I mean, in New Hampshire in June, he was roundly criticized for being too passive.

And having coined the phrase Obamneycare, Mitt Romney being the father of Barack Obama's health care plan, on a TV show, and then refusing and being unwilling to make the same statement when Romney was sitting next to him on the set, so he was -- they said, gee, haven't you got the fight or the feist in you? And he was going to prove it last night.

And I think that's the way he decided to go. I don't know if it does work. Jim, what we're talking about is a Straw Poll where we're talking about 4,500 votes could win this for anybody. So if it moved 500 or 1,000 people last night, that -- that debate, it could really alter the outcome.

And I would say, in Rich's mix, I would include Ron Paul in that top three. I mean, he has a campaign here and a following that is intense and is dedicated and a campaign that's real.

JIM LEHRER: And because of the numbers, Rich, you would agree that Ron Paul could make a difference.

RICH LOWRY: And Ron Paul and his supporters have shown the ability in the past to really play and win these Straw Polls. There's an annual conservative gathering here called CPAC, where Ron Paul swamps it practically every year now.

And what he's done is take that operation and he's going to try it out in Iowa in a much more consequential setting. And if Bachmann finishes first or second, and Paul finishes second -- first or second and knocks Pawlenty down into third, this may be the political act with the most practical consequence that we have ever seen from Ron Paul, which is ending the Tim Pawlenty campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go back to Romney for a moment.

You used the term -- you used the verb skate; he skated through. What do you mean? How does -- how is Romney -- what is Romney doing that keeps himself as the front-runner?

RICH LOWRY: Well, you get the sense that he's flying a little bit above everyone else. He's going out of his way to attack the president more than any other candidate.

When Tim Pawlenty had, I thought, that somewhat cringe-inducing canned attack on Romney where he said, if you can identify the president's entitlement plan, I will mow your lawn, but I will only mow one acre of Romney's lawn, what was Romney's response when he was asked for one? Well, that's OK, just sort of brushing it aside.

And I think part of what is going on here is Romney learned from first time around that you can move your legs really fast for a very long time very early in the process. You can spend a lot of money to win the Ames Straw Poll, and it can all wash away at the end. So part of this is a deliberate strategy to be a lower-key candidate until the fall.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, Mark? This was a big decision he made, to not even involve himself in the Straw Poll. He was at that debate, but he's not in the Straw Poll.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, that's right, Jim.

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