Video: December 11: Paul, Durbin, Graham, roundtable

updated 12/11/2011 1:03:11 PM ET 2011-12-11T18:03:11

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, about last night in Iowa.

(Videotape)

FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA):  The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.

FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA):  Now, wait a second.  I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  The Republicans square off just 23 days before the caucuses. Candidate Ron Paul joins me to discuss the latest GOP front-runner, Newt Gingrich, plus his own prospects in the state where he's now polling in the top tier.  Could Paul be the upset winner?

Then, what's driving this presidential election?  The payroll tax debate grips Washington, but President Obama argued this week income inequality is the larger issue.

(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  This is the defining issue of our time.  This is a make or break moment for the middle class.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  A debate this morning.  With us, Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois; and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

Finally, it's our political roundtable on what's changed in the GOP race for the White House this week and what distinguishes Romney from Gingrich.  With us, special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center" news magazine Ted Koppel, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, and NBC's chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd.  Also, joining the conversation this morning, Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad.

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

MR. GREGORY:  Good morning.  What a difference a month makes.  Newt Gingrich is now the undisputed front-runner in the Republican race.  He's atop the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.  And look at this, this morning we have new results from our NBC/Marist Poll.  The other key early states, South Carolina and Florida, it is Gingrich going away in both of those states.  As the front-runner, Gingrich bore the brunt of the attacks in last night's Republican debate in Iowa.  And here with us live this morning, Dr. Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman and candidate for president, of course.

Dr. Paul, welcome back to the program.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX):  Thank you, David, good to be with you.

MR. GREGORY:  Did Newt Gingrich do anything to diminish his chances in Iowa last night?

REP. PAUL:  Well, I don't know whether he did it, but I think because he had to face a lot of serious questions about, you know, his change in positions and what he has to defend, I would think that he shouldn't have gained from that, but that remains to be seen.  I guess somebody's going to do a poll rather quickly.  But, you know, we've had people, you know, leading the pack off and on this whole past year, so it'll be interesting to see just what happens here in the next week or two.

MR. GREGORY:  The question of, the question of who's the consistent conservative.  The issue of him receiving payments from Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant, this was the subject of where you took him on last night and his response.  Watch.

(Videotape, last night)

REP. PAUL:  Well, he's been on different positions, you know, on so many issues, you know, single payer.  He's taken positions that are not conservative.  He supported the TARP funds.  And the other thing that really would annoy--should annoy a lot of people, he received a lot of money from Freddie Mac.  So, in a way, Newt, I think you probably got some of our taxpayers' money.  They got taxed, and they got money, and they're still getting bailed out.  But you're a spokesman for them and you received money from them.

FMR. REP. GINGRICH:  I was never a spokesman for any agency.  I never did any lobbying for the agency.  I offered strategic advice.  I was in the private sector, and I was doing things in the private sector.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Paul, this week you said that Gingrich should apologize for taking that money.  Are you satisfied with how he answered that last night?

REP. PAUL:  No, not really, but what can you do in politics?  That's the best he could do with it, but the crowd didn't welcome his answer very well because, obviously, it is seen being playing a role of influence, and a lot of money, what was it, $1.6 million that he received?  And, you know, this is the epitome of the bailouts and the problems.  And, of course, it annoyed me a little bit more because it was a subject I had worked on for so long.  You know, having been on the Financial Services Committee and deal so much in the formation of bubbles and why we have distortions and why we have recessions. So this was rather annoying.  Then, he also, you know, tried to make the point, well, it's the Federal Reserve that causes the business cycle.  Which is correct, but I'll tell you what, when you make the credit, somebody has to distribute it and somebody has to benefit.  And it was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and they're still in business, receiving taxpayers' money.  It's a deeply flawed system.  So we can't expect the housing bubble and the correction from that to resolve itself until we look at this in a more serious manner.

MR. GREGORY:  But, but just to pin you down on this, because you were very direct about this this week, should he give the money back?  Should he apologize for receiving the money from Freddie Mac?

REP. PAUL:  Well, legally, he doesn't have to.  But I would think, morally, he having received this money.  Yes, I wouldn't--I wouldn't have taken their money.  You know, just for the fact that I think it was an immoral thing to take, take money.  Besides, I don't like this idea that you're going to influence somebody that is a pseudo-government agency.  And this was my argument over the many years that because they got subsidies and they had a line of credit and they were guaranteed a bailout, it was written all over that this would come about because it was artificial, there was a line of credit, and the Fed was involved.  So it was, as far as I'm concerned, about as close to the government as you can get.  To call that private is, is not exactly accurate.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let's come back to the key point in the debate last night.  Who is the consistent conservative?  The issue came up about health care and support for an individual mandate in Massachusetts by Governor Romney, whether he supported it nationally, as is the case in the president's healthcare legislation, something that Newt Gingrich supported as well in the early '90s.  It was Michele Bachmann who, who took them on as whether they're real conservatives, coining the phrase "Newt-Romney." Listen.

(Videotape, last night)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN):  If you want a difference, Michele Bachmann is the proven conservative.  It's not Newt-Romney.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  I know Newt Gingrich and Newt Gingrich is a friend of mine, but he and I are not clones, I promise, so.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Do you buy that?  Who is the real conservative out of those two?  You've got to go through one or both of them to win in Iowa.

REP. PAUL:  Well, I think they're, they're--they come from the same mold. They're about the same.  They're, they're both on the defensive.  They're both explaining themselves.  And I even said that last night that why should we have a nominee that's going to spend most of their time explaining themselves and deciding what, what position they were on and when?  I think that's too much on the defensive, and I think if you're consistent, it speaks for itself. You know, nobody ever challenges me that, but I don't have to brag about it, either, because everybody knows exactly what I'm going to do, exactly what I've done for 30 years.  So it goes without speaking about it.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, but, I just want to be clear on this point.  You consider both Gingrich and Romney unacceptable as consistent conservatives?

REP. PAUL:  Well, I would say they're not consistent.  I think they more or less admitted that they've changed their positions on--it's not that they're in denial.  It's just that they admit that they were on one side of a position here and the other side of a position on another time.  So I think that's, I think, pretty clearly understood.  It's just that, you know, that's not considered, you know, a litmus test.  It seems like people are rather tolerant, "OK, he did that 10 years ago"...

MR. GREGORY:  But Congressman...

REP. PAUL:  ..."but he doesn't do it now."

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman, you've been tough in you ads that are up in Iowa. You do go after Gingrich, flip-flopping, being all over the place on issues, like climate change, when he cut an ad with Nancy Pelosi.  You never specifically go after Romney.  Are you more comfortable with Romney as a standard-bearer of the party, should it come to that, should you not beat him?

REP. PAUL:  Well, I think their philosophies are pretty close; but, you know, I think the answer that was given last night, I think Romney comes back a little more diplomatic.  I think that he handles himself a little differently than Newt.  And, Newt, you know, Newt's living up to this.  As a matter of fact, he's addressed this subject the he is a very determined person and can rub people the wrong way.  I don't think he's been saying that he doesn't do that.  I think Mitt has a little bit of more diplomatic tone to his voice and the way he handles himself.

MR. GREGORY:  So who represents more change?  Who represents change in the way that Republican primary voters want?

REP. PAUL:  You, you mean out of the, out of the six of us were on the stage last night?

MR. GREGORY:  Out of those two.  Well, but start--but start with the guys you have to go through.

REP. PAUL:  Out of those two.  Oh, no, I don't think either one of them represents change.  As a matter of fact, I've always categorized all of my opponents as fitting into one category, they more or less support the status quo.  I mean, how many of them have challenged foreign policy?  How many challenge, you know, the monetary system?  How many people challenge the welfare system?  How many wanted real cuts?  Nobody else has offered any real cuts, you know, in spending.  And I offer real cuts.  So I would say they're all a variation of defending the status quo.  And I think that's why there's so much frustration, and people are hopping around.  They're looking for somebody; and I think, quite frankly, that might be the reason we're going up in the polls.  And, you know, we still have a few weeks to go, so we'll have to wait and see what happens.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about foreign policy, since you raised it last night.  It was Gingrich who first made news on Saturday by saying the Palestinians were, in his words, "an invented people." And he defended that last night, saying that there are major elements of the Palestinian leadership that are committed to Israel's destruction.  And he added this:

(Videotape, last night)

FMR. REP. GINGRICH:  Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools, they have textbooks that say if there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left.  We pay for those textbooks through our aid money.  It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say enough lying about the Middle East.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Is that courage, is that speaking the truth?  Or is that pandering to evangelical Christians in Iowa?

REP. PAUL:  Well, I, I think it was a--purely a political statement. And--but I think it demonstrates my point, and it makes my position very clear that there's, there's--all the harm done is on--not only on one side; and that fight has been going on in that part of the world for a long time.  And I remember so clearly what Ronald Reagan said when he got in and messed up in Lebanon.  He, he said that if he had been more neutral and following neutrality and had not put those Marines in there, those Marines would still be alive.  In other words, he's saying the politics of that region, and these are his words, the politics are irrational, the irrationality of the politics there.

And that's why I, I think it's such a wise thing to do to follow our founders and, and not pretend that we know who the bad people are and who's saying the bad things, and one side is perfectly pure and the other side are only the terrorists.  There's a lot of people die over there, and a lot of people die on both sides.  And I don't think we have the wisdom to sort that out nor do we have the authority to sort that out and put our will.  I think that region should be determined by the individuals there.  I don't think that Israel should ever sacrifice their sovereignty to us and, and I think that's what they have done.  They can't do much, they can't defend their borders or design their peace treaties without getting permission from us.  And I think we should defend the sovereignty of Israel and not confuse things.  And it makes things worse by demagoguing it and saying exactly who is to blame and who isn't to blame.

MR. GREGORY:  Before you go, congressman, let me ask you about the strength of your following.  Mitt Romney acknowledged it last night, saying everywhere he goes in Iowa your supporters are there.  And he respects that.  If you don't prevail in Iowa or don't prevail to get the nomination, will you endorse?

REP. PAUL:  Oh, I have no idea.  I'll wait and see about that.  It depends on how the platform works out; and, you know, I was bragging a little bit last night when they asked us about our opponents up there, and I was very pleased that some of them are starting to use a little bit of the language that I use. We'll wait and see how things go and, and--since they are willing to change their positions and have in the past.  So I'll keep my fingers crossed and see what happens.  But my main goal is to look to January 3rd and January 10th, and we're doing well.  So it's premature for me to be talking about what I'm going to do after January 10th until we find out exactly how this plays out.

MR. GREGORY:  You have endorsed in the past a libertarian candidate, somebody outside the two-party system.  Are you ruling out a third party run at any point?

REP. PAUL:  I have, I have no plans to do that.

MR. GREGORY:  Are you ruling it out?

REP. PAUL:  I'm not going to rule anything out or any--anything in.  I don't talk in absolutes.  And I stated to my position that we really have a very nice campaign going on, and there--and people are recognizing this.  And we have thousands of young people now that are campaigning for us.

MR. GREGORY:  Well...

REP. PAUL:  And the turnouts are just fantastic.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, to that point, though...

REP. PAUL:  For me to be distracted...

MR. GREGORY:  Well, to that point, are you open...

REP. PAUL:  For me to be distracted about...

MR. GREGORY:  Are you open to a third party run?

REP. PAUL:  I am not even thinking about it.

MR. GREGORY:  But you won't rule it out completely?

REP. PAUL:  Because I have enough on my plate right now.  I mean, we, we have a lot of campaigning to do, and, and we're going to be very, very busy in these next couple of weeks.  That is what I'm concentrating on, and we're going to see what happens.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Congressman Paul, we will be following the debate very closely.  Thank you so much.

REP. PAUL:  You're welcome.

MR. GREGORY:  Joining me now, assistant majority leader in the Senate, Dick Durbin, the Democrat of Illinois.  Also, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.  Welcome to you both.

I want to debate income inequality, but, Senator Graham, I do want to start with you and talk politics.  It's a big focus.  You saw that debate last night in Iowa.  And in your state, as I just referenced a moment ago, it is Newt Gingrich going away in South Carolina over his rivals Romney and Ron Paul.  Is he for real?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC):  Yeah, I think if the election were held tomorrow, he'd win South Carolina.  And I saw bits and pieces of the debate. It's clear to me that Newt Gingrich has established himself as the Republican front-runner.  And yeah, he's for real.

MR. GREGORY:  Is he different?  You said that you've talked to him, you feel like he's different than he was.  What's changed?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Mm-hmm.  Well, you know, last night he took a lot of the shots. I thought he handled it all well.  It was very calm.  You know, he's been out of government for a long time.  He's matured as a person.  He's reattached himself to his faith.  He seemed to be--you know, we had a good conversation about energy policy, talked about the past.  You know, the coup started in my office, so obviously the guy doesn't hold grudges.  But yeah, I think he's leveled out as a person.  And all of us, even his worst critics, would say that Newt is a guy that can really hold a room, a very smart fella.  And on his watch, he and President Clinton did some big things together--welfare reform, balancing the budget.  So, you know, during his time, a lot of good things got done, and he had troubles, too.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, quickly, before I move on, you led the coup against him as speaker back in the House, is what you're referring to.  Would you endorse him for president now?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I'm not going to endorse him, but I think he could beat President Obama, and I would certainly support him as president, if he won the nomination.  I think we're in a good spot to win this election.  It is our election to lose.  The president's numbers are terrible, his policies are nowhere.

MR. GREGORY:  Will you--will you endorse somebody else, sir?

SEN. GRAHAM:  His policies are...

MR. GREGORY:  Will you endorse anyone?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I don't know, David.  I--you know, I don't think so.  I really had a real close relationship with Senator McCain.  I don't have that with the people in the field.  I like them all.  I hope Ron Paul does well.  And if he, if he doesn't make it, I hope he'll help us, as a party, defeat President Obama because we can't stand four more years of the policies that are in place now.  So I hope Ron Paul will help us, as a party, defeat President Obama.

MR. GREGORY:  As opposed to running as a third party candidate?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Yeah.  You know, the Ron Paul element of the party is real.  He has a lot of enthusiasm.  We're, we're better together.  We have a common political desire, and that is to end the, the Obama's--Obama's policies, not four more years of things that are clearly hurting the country.  And you're not going to be better off with a second term of Obama.  Clearly, you're not better off now.  And I don't see any hope of people being better off, and I hope Ron Paul will help us make that case.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Durbin, let me turn to you.  Again, income inequality is a, is a big debate.  Before we get to the broader points, let's talk about the news, and that is the payroll tax cut extension.  This is something that Republicans, Democrats are debating now.  Is this going to happen?  Will it get extended?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL):  I can tell you, David, it's the highest priority of the president and the Democrats in Congress.  We're talking about a payroll tax cut for almost 160 million Americans, and what it comes down to for the average Illinoisan is about $1,000 a year.  If Congress fails to extend the payroll tax cut, it's a new tax, an added tax next year for average working people.  What the president said in Kansas really applies to this debate. This is a make or break moment for the middle class.  And to this point, the Republicans have consistently said they will refuse to increase the taxes on the wealthiest people in America one penny if that's what it takes to make sure that working families get a payroll tax cut.  It is a clear, defining moment, a contrast between the parties, that the president has made clear. And we have said, for example, we will exempt the first million dollars in income for the wealthiest in America, and just put a surtax on the second million dollars that they earn each year, and the Republicans say no.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, Senator Graham...

SEN. DURBIN:  They refuse to allow us...

MR. GREGORY:  Go, go ahead, finish your point, Senator.

SEN. DURBIN:  Well, they refuse to allow us to use this millionaire surtax, whether it's to save the jobs of teachers and firefighters and policemen or invest in America in infrastructure.  And what they've said is these are the job creators.  In fact, what we know now is that among small business people in America, about 1 percent make money at this level, $1 1/2 million a year. So in order to protect that 1 percent of small business owners...

MR. GREGORY:  OK.

SEN. DURBIN:  ...and to protect the 1 percent of taxpayers, they are turning down a tax cut for working families.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Graham, Republicans in the House are saying that, if you want this tax cut extension, you got to do more, and they talk about the Keystone pipeline.  Let's show the map of this.  This would be an oil pipeline that would be extended.  It goes from Alberta all the way down south, and the dotted portion there would be the extension.  Environmentalists are opposed to it.  the administration says, "No, we'll take this up after the election." Does this have to be part of the equation to ultimately get a payroll tax cut extension?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I think the House's package that does extend the payroll tax cuts has a lot of things I would support, like the pipeline, the doc fix, some other...(unintelligible)...regulatory reform.  But at the end of the day, the payroll tax will get extended as it is now.  It won't get expanded, it'll get extended.  And we'll find a way to pay for it in a bipartisan fashion.  This idea of taxing one group to pay for a tax cut for another is not going to sell.  The pipeline's probably not going to sell.  And it is important that we extend the tax cut through, through next year, but it's even more important we come up with sustainable policies that will turn America around.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

SEN. GRAHAM:  And this idea, what is a fair share, David, Dick, tell me? What is--pick a number.  Tell me.  Tell, tell the American people what should the top income earners, what should the top rate be?  Pick a number and tell me what's fair.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me talk in that vein about the middle class.  The fight for the middle class, as the president talked about this week.  And so people understand, here are some quick facts that really go to this question of income inequality and to the fight for the middle class.  On earnings and savings, incomes have stagnated while wealthy incomes have skyrocketed.  On housing, equities in home values half of 2006 levels.  When it come to retirement, a quarter in polling say they will need to work until at least age 80 to live comfortably in retirement.  This was the point the president made this week in Kansas.  Watch.

(Videotape, Tuesday)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded.  Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.  Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  And yet wealthy Americans, he went on to say, have gone on to do better.  Senator Graham, is the issue, as the president argues, income inequality?  Or is it something more fundamental in the economy?

SEN. GRAHAM:  No...

MR. GREGORY:  Is it national decline?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I think the issue is that his failure--he's, he's got a failed presidency, and he didn't talk about the things he has done to make America a stronger, better place in a bipartisan fashion.  Ronald Reagan sat down with Tip O'Neill to solve the Social Security problem.  Bill Clinton sat down with Newt Gingrich to balance the budget and end welfare as we know it.  This whole speech is about pitting one group of Americans against the others.  And his policies are the biggest threat to the hard-working Americans.  If you're a union guy, the pipeline would be good news for you because it would create 20,000 jobs.  The NLRB in the hands of this administration almost cost a facility in South Carolina that would have cost 10,000 hard-working South Carolinians their jobs because of union politics.  The environmental policies of this administration make it very hard to create a job.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

SEN. GRAHAM:  And you can't borrow money because of Dodd-Frank.  The speech, my--the speech wasn't about his successes.  It's about hard working Americans and class warfare.  And I ask the question again, Mr. President, what is a fair share?  Pick a number.  Tell me how much you want to take in taxes at the top rate.  Pick a number, and let's see if it makes economic sense...

MR. GREGORY:  All right, Senator Durbin.

SEN. GRAHAM:  ...or solve politics.  What is the number?

SEN. DURBIN:  I--David, let me just say that the president has tried for three straight years to work directly with the Republicans to solve the problems of this country.  Even this year, on three different occasions, he has met with Speaker Boehner, and with the Republican Leader Cantor to try to work on our deficit, and each time they walked out on him.  This week, in the United--or this last week in the United States Senate, as an illustration on two separate occasions, Republicans used the filibuster, something they said they wouldn't do except under extraordinary circumstances, to stop an appointment of a woman, a well--unanimously well-qualified woman to the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, and to stop the appointment of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  For the president now to say, "Listen, we have a clear choice.  The Republicans will not cooperate to work to move this economy forward.  We have got to focus on what the future will be." What the Republicans offer us is the same formula that brought us into this recession. Cut taxes on the wealthy and cut the government oversight that makes sure we have clean drinking water, air we can breathe, and make sure that Wall Street doesn't run Washington, instead of the other way around.

MR. GREGORY:  Twenty, 20, 20 seconds, Senator Graham, do Republicans have a hard time talking about inequality in the country when it comes to incomes and comes to the economy?

SEN. GRAHAM:  The best way to get American equal and--is to grow the economy. The Obama policies have been a miserable failure.  They had the Congress, a Democratic majority, they increased spending by 24 percent; if you count the stimulus, by 80 percent.  So this consumer bureau that they want to pass is under the Federal Reserve.  No appropriation oversight, no board.  It is something out of the Stalinist era.  The reason Republicans don't want to vote for it is we want a board, not one person, making all the regulatory decisions, and there's no oversight under this person.  He gets a check from the Federal Reserve.  We want him under the Congress so we can oversee the overseer.  So his policies are why hard-working Americans are going to lose now, and they will never get better in the second term of Obama administration.  That's why we're going to win as Republicans.

MR. GREGORY:  Finally, Senator Durbin, as you look at the president's prospects, you look at the status of his approval rating, how much of a challenge does he face for re-election?

SEN. DURBIN:  Let me tell you, what the president has done, particularly in the last few months, where he has stepped up with a jobs program, supported across the board by the American people, and said to the Republicans, either join me in moving America forward and creating jobs, or face the next election for a referendum on whether we're going to return to the failed Republican economic policies, I think that is a clear contrast.  What he said in Kansas brought us back down to basics.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

SEN. DURBIN:  This is a make or break moment for the middle class in America.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  We're going to leave it there.  Thanks to both of you.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Now, David, if I could just add, David, the president introduced a budget that got no votes.  He's rejected his own fiscal commission.  He gave a speech that had nothing to do with turning around the economy.

SEN. DURBIN:  That's not, that's not accurate.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

SEN. GRAHAM:  He won't tell us what a fair share is...

MR. GREGORY:  The debate, the debate will...

SEN. GRAHAM:  ...because it's all politics.

MR. GREGORY:  The debate will continue.  Thank you both very much.

Coming up, where does the GOP race now stand?  Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad is going to join our political roundtable.  Plus, what happened to Mitt Romney, who was once seen as the inevitable nominee.  Alex Castellanos, one of his former advisers, says Romney has get to show character and what exactly he's willing to fight for.  He's going to join our political roundtable, as well, along with NBC's Ted Koppel, Lisa Myers and Chuck Todd, after this break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Coming up, how does America remember Newt Gingrich?  And will the answer determine his prospects for the White House?  Joining me, the roundtable:  Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in Iowa, Alex Castellanos, NBC's Ted Koppel, Chuck Todd and Lisa Myers.  They're all next right after this break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We are back with our political roundtable.  Joining me, NBC's senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, she knows a thing or two about Newt Gingrich, having covered him all those years on Capitol Hill; our chief White House correspondent and political director for NBC News, Chuck Todd; Republican strategist Alex Castellanos; and special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center" news magazine, Ted Koppel.  What a pleasure to be able to say NBC's Ted Koppel.

MR. TED KOPPEL:  You still have a hard time getting that out, don't you, David?

MR. GREGORY:  No, no, no.  It comes easily off the tongue.

MS. LISA MYERS:  No.

MR. GREGORY:  Thanks for being here, Ted.  And live from Des Moines, Iowa, Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad.  He was a popular guy last night because, if you're running for, for president and--you want to get that important nod from the governor of the state.  Governor, good to have you. We'll be with you in just a moment.

Chuck Todd, this is how it looks in Florida and South Carolina, as I referenced, we'll put them up on the screen.  South Carolina first, it is Gingrich going away.  Lindsey Graham said he'd win the election in South Carolina if it were today.  And, in Florida, it's Gingrich going away.  The major moment, of course, the polling, the status of the race, and what happened last night in Iowa.  Here was the moment between Romney and Gingrich. Watch.

(Videotape, last night)

FMR. REP. GINGRICH:  Let's be candid.  The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Now, wait a second.  Now, wait a second.  With regards to the idea that if I would've beaten Ted Kennedy I could've been a career politician, that's probably true.  If I would've been able to get in the NFL liked I hoped when I was a kid, why I would've been a football star all my life, too.  But I, but I--but I spent, I spent my life in the private sector. Losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could've done for preparing me for the job I'm seeking because it put me back in the private sector.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Chuck Todd, where are we?

MR. CHUCK TODD:  Well, first of all, those are a couple of nimble debaters. They are pretty good.  I think we have seen it.  This is the final two.  When they're one-on-one debates or even if it's the three of them, Ron Paul shows that he can give as well as he can take.  It's going to be an interesting, long primary campaign if it, indeed, goes long.  But I tell you, obviously, what we're seeing in the polls, it's instructive that Newt Gingrich brought up 1994 because that is his key strength, and it is Romney's key weakness. Because what was Newt Gingrich doing in October of '94?  He was leading a conservative revolution.  That's the one big memory, and as I had a Romney person tell me this, that every negative they've been trying to throw at Newt, they, they realize you can't just use one because he has that pristine memory in the minds of conservative voters.  Well, you know what, he did it.  And what was Mitt Romney doing in October of 1994?  Basically saying, "I'm not really a Republican, Massachusetts voters, don't worry.  I'm not that conservative, not even sure if I voted for Reagan or for Bush or who I was for back in the '80s."

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MR. TODD:  So it's interesting that Newt brings up that moment because I think it's sort of--it's a clear ideological contrast.

MR. GREGORY:  Lisa Myers.

MS. MYERS:  Well, I think that, clearly, Governor Romney needed to block Newt Gingrich's momentum last night, and he didn't accomplish that.  This is Newt Gingrich's wheelhouse, verbal combat.  No one is better at it.  No one enjoys it more.  You know, the, the key for him is not to appear too mean, not to go totally off message, and he didn't--neither happened to him last night.  So it was a very successful evening for him.  You know, unfortunately, I think for Governor Romney, the, the clip that will be played a lot is him trying to make the $10,000 bet with Governor Perry.

MR. GREGORY:  And he--he--you don't say.  Here was the, the fight with Rick Perry over the individual mandate in health care.  Watch.

(Videotape, last night)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX):  I read your first book, and it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts should be the model for the country.  And I know it came out of the, of the reprint of the book.  But, you know, I'm just saying, you were for individual mandates, my friend.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  You know what, you've raised that before, Rick, and you're simply wrong.

GOV. PERRY:  It was, it was true then.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  No, no.

GOV. PERRY:  It's true now.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Rick, I'll tell you what, 10,000 bucks, $10,000 bet?

GOV. PERRY:  I'm not in the betting business.

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Oh, OK, OK.

GOV. PERRY:  I'll, I'll...

(End videotape)

MS. MYERS:  Well, the annual average--the median annual income in Iowa is less, is, is only about $50,000.  So a 10,000 bet, $10,000 bet is pretty extraordinary.  In fairness, we should point out that Newt Gingrich had a similar moment not that long ago when he said he really didn't need to lobby because he was making so much money on speeches, charging $60,000 for a speech.  So both Republican candidates have given Democrats good material for an ad in the fall.

MR. GREGORY:  Governor Branstad in Iowa, it is the fight for your state. What mattered about last night?

GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD (R-IA):  Well, I think they all performed very well.  The real loser was President Obama because his policies have been a disaster.  But when you increase the national debt a trillion dollars a year, Americans don't want to become the next Greece or Italy.  We want somebody that's going to get America's spending under control and reduce taxes and regulatory burdens, not divide the American people by attacking the entrepreneurs and the people that invest and create jobs.  It's a shame the president of the United States appoints the Bowles-Simpson Commission, and then he walks away from it.  He had the opportunity last year in the State of the Union address to come up with a plan to reduce spending and put America on the right track.  Instead, he's just playing politics.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

GOV. BRANSTAD:  The president of the United States ought to be better than that, than divide the American people.  We need a leader, somebody that's going to put America back on the right track, somebody like Ronald Reagan. There's nobody that's perfect.

MR. GREGORY:  So, so who's like him?  Who's like him?

GOV. BRANSTAD:  But I think we can see that all of these candidates are much better than the present president.

MR. GREGORY:  Who's like him out there?

GOV. BRANSTAD:  Well, I think--people like--first of all, I think each of the candidates had their moments last night and did very well.  And people liked the fact that Ronald Reagan told it like it was.  I was an early Reagan supporter here in 1976.  I'm proud of the leadership that he provided for this country under the malaise that we were under back under Jimmy Carter, and we had a president that brought America back and rebuilt our economy.  And we need a president that has that kind of courage, not somebody that's going to divide the American people, one against another.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

GOV. BRANSTAD:  We need to reduce the tax and regulatory burden.  When I was governor before, Canada--the Canadian dollar was worth 65 cents to the American dollar, and we were able to bring Canadian companies here.  Now the Canadian taxes are lower...

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let me get Alex Castellanos in.

GOV. BRANSTAD:  ...their financial system's stronger.

MR. ALEX CASTELLANOS:  Good points, all.  I will say that I think Governor Romney lost a lot more than 10,000 bucks last night, and Newt Gingrich won a lot.  Why hasn't Mitt Romney bumped above 25 percent in any polls?  And I think we saw it last night.  Voters think this country's in huge trouble, Republicans do, and they want somebody to bring big change.  And Mitt Romney last night said he was the cautious guy.  That's how he's been running his campaign all year.  He's been saying, "I'm not going to risk any political capital.  I'm going to let the other guys lose." What that does is it builds a thing in marketing we call resentful dependence, right?  It's like you're the cable company or the power company.  When you tell, "Hey, you have no choice but to buy from us, you know, take it or leave it." And voters...

MR. KOPPEL:  Wait.  You want to nice to cable companies...(unintelligible).

MR. GREGORY:  Especially here.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  That's the old cable companies, the new ones are great.

MR. TODD:  You're on the team.

MS. MYERS:  All right.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  That's the old ones cable companies.  The new ones are wonderful.  The...

MS. MYERS:  On message.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  ...problem is that makes voters want to tell Mitt Romney, "Oh yeah?  We'll teach you a lesson." And last night he gave them an opportunity to do that with an elitist comment.  Newt Gingrich is running, I think, a very--you know, he's running as the strong guy, not the cautious guy. That means he's going to--he can get out there and say, "Look, your house is burning down, I'm the fireman.  You don't care where I slept last night or what I did.  Let me put out the fire.  You need me on that wall."

MR. GREGORY:  Ted Koppel, what did you see?

MR. KOPPEL:  I have to invoke the great Lily Tomlin, David, who once said, "No matter how cynical I get, I can never keep up." As I, as I watch Newt Gingrich, and he is doing extraordinarily well, and I think the consensus this morning seems to be that, if there was a winner last night, it had to be Newt Gingrich.  The fact that he has been able to overcome all that he seems to be overcoming leaves me absolutely breathless.

MR. GREGORY:  And yet, you heard Senator Graham say he appears to be a different guy in some ways.  Do you hear, do you see the difference in him?

MR. KOPPEL:  Well, I see the discipline in him; and, indeed, one of the big raps against Newt Gingrich is that he gets carried up in his own eloquence sometimes and loses that discipline.  Last night, he was disciplined, except for that little wink that he throws at the audience every once in a while.

MR. TODD:  Well...

MR. CASTELLANOS:  Some of it is, though, David, some of it is not just--is Newt Gingrich matured.  He's a 68-year-old grandfather now, right?  We hear that all the time.  But some of it is, does the country want somebody who's a little imaginative and unpredictable...

MR. KOPPEL:  Right.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  ...and will go outside of the box?  Because the problems are so big and demand more than incremental change.

MR. TODD:  David, I'm curious, I'm curious what Governor Branstad said--thinks, because it sounds like Governor Branstad was saying he liked that--and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you liked somebody that is telling it like it is.  Has Mitt Romney been too cautious in Iowa?

GOV. BRANSTAD:  Well, you've got to give Ron Paul credit for having a plan that's going to get rid of this huge deficit.  He's the one that's been very consistent on that.  I think that's one of the reasons he's doing well.  The Iowa poll says number one issue is get America's spending under control.  I, like many other governors, are cutting spending and focusing on reducing taxes and regulations to bring jobs and revitalize our state's economy.  The federal government, with its high federal tax burden and penalties on business, everything from Dodd-Frank to the Rice Rule under the EPA, is damaging our communities, our businesses and preventing us from creating jobs out here in the heartland of America.

MR. TODD:  But, governor, about Mitt Romney, has he been too cautious in Iowa?

GOV. BRANSTAD:  Yes, and I think he's starting to understand that he's going to have to get much more aggressive.  He's going to need to spend more time here.  He's opened a campaign office.  He was in Cedar Rapids the day before yesterday.  I understand he's going to be back campaigning more aggressively. He's starting to advertise on television.  But this is a wide open race in Iowa.  The lead has changed hands many times.  I think there's still a lot of undecided voters.  It could go any way.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  Chuck...

GOV. BRANSTAD:  And really, people are looking for the strongest and best candidate that will defeat Barack Obama.

MR. GREGORY:  Alex, yeah.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  Chuck, to your point, the best thing about Mitt Romney is not that he's been a cautious man.  The truth about his success is he's been a transformational figure.  He transformed the Olympics, he transformed, you know, Bain Capital, built companies, transformational change in Massachusetts. That's the Mitt Romney I know.  And this campaign, I think, has diminished him by making him smaller than his great gifts really reveal.

MR. GREGORY:  But, Ted, and Lisa, there is this attempt at a real contrast, what I thought was another major moment in the week, and it was in the debate last night, was the contrast Romney painted of himself vs. Gingrich on this issue of Gingrich saying that the Palestinians were an invented people. Watch.

(Videotape, last night)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  I will exercise sobriety, care, stability.  I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.

REP. GINGRICH:  I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as it was Ronald Reagan, who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.

(End videotape)

MS. MYERS:  You know, the speaker may characterize that as courage, but it's also a fact that that's a very popular thing to say with all the evangelicals in Iowa.  So where he, where he says courage, some people see pander.

MR. KOPPEL:  When he talks about the Palestinians, you know, you go back 100 years, there was no Saudi Arabia, there was no Iraq, there was no Jordan.  As an historian, I think Speaker Gingrich needs to be a little more accurate.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  This is, this is Newtonium.  Newt Gingrich is radioactive material.  The establishment thinks if they get too close he could kill every Republican on the ballot.  The voters look at it and go, "Wow, what great power."

MR. GREGORY:  And Mike Murphy tweeted this, Ted, to your point, I'll put it up on the screen, "Mitt," meaning Romney, "missed an opportunity to clobber Newt as reckless college professor.  World politics is not a lecture hall." That's the real--the argument he's making is, "Look, you're president of the United States, you talk like that, you may not pursue the two-state solution, but you're going to roil a region that's already going through revolutionary change."

MR. KOPPEL:  David, it's not only that.  Think about this.  Newt Gingrich was taking a more pro-Israeli position than any recent Israeli prime minister. There's hardly any leader in Israel today who would align himself or herself with the position that Gingrich took last night.

MR. TODD:  But I'll tell you this.  Republican primary voters, look, the same argument was made at Reagan in '79 and '80, both by Republicans running against him, and Democrats and--that ended up running against Reagan that this--"You can't say these things, you can't say these things." Well, you know, the other part of that clip is when he went after and he called Mitt Romney timid.  So here's Mitt Romney using sobriety, and then also Newt Gingrich comes back with not only that, "I'm sorry, I confused the timid here."

MR. CASTELLANOS:  Someone hears that and they hear Churchill.

MR. GREGORY:  Lisa.

MS. MYERS:  But, you know, I think what's instructive is the people who know Newt Gingrich best, the people who served with him, do not come down where Lindsey Graham did this morning.  They are quite concerned.  And in all my years of covering Republican politics, I have never heard Republicans who knew the, the potential nominee well, speak this poorly of someone.  And they--yes, he accomplished great things as speaker, but they also remember the chaos, the polarization, the incendiary remarks.  And at the end of four years, they believe he had damaged the Republican brand and that he had damaged the conservative cause.  I mean, in that last election, the people--Republicans in swing--in close districts believed that Gingrich had become so radioactive, he cost them 10 points.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let me get a break in here.  We'll continue with more of these major moments.  Also the issue of marriage came up last night at the debate.  More with our roundtable right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We're back with our roundtable.  Another major moment this week.  It happened in the debate.  Does marriage matter?  This was the response.

(Videotape, last night)

GOV. PERRY:  I've always kind of been of the opinion that if you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partners.  So I think that issue of fidelity is important.

REP. GINGRICH:  I think people have to render judgment.  In my case, I've said up front, openly, I've made mistakes at times, I've had to go to God for forgiveness.  I've had to seek reconciliation.  But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Lisa Myers.

MS. MYERS:  I thought it was perhaps his best moment of the debate because it was a potentially very difficult moment for him.  He acknowledged errors.  And I think that's also been his message behind the scenes, not on marriage issues, but as--that he would, indeed, be a more reliable conservative and that he is not as undisciplined and erratic as he was during his four years as speaker.  And I think it's selling with some conservatives.

MR. TODD:  I was fascinated that he used his age there and saying grandfather.  He was almost saying, "Hey, I'm 60, I'm not doing that again." You know, it was almost saying, you know, "I'm not going to do that again. I'm not that guy anymore.  I may have been." And it's not just--so it's rare that you see somebody emphasize it.  He's one of the older presidential candidates we've had that's--that has a real shot at the presidency.  So it was interesting that he used his age.  But I think that's why.

MR. CASTELLANOS:  Very effective, very effective.  I thought this put him on, "Hey, I'm on the other side of the divide now.  I'm not that old, scary Gingrich anymore." What--there's a cost to it, though.  If he, if he connects the new Gingrich with the old, if he makes another unforced error, if he gets reckless again, then that means this isn't true, and he goes right back to being the same old Newt Gingrich.  Can he maintain that discipline for three months?

MR. GREGORY:  Another major moment is about foreign policy.  The Republicans accusing this president of appeasement.  And there's also the prospect of what happens in Iraq, Ted Koppel.  You were there reporting for "Rock Center." As U.S. troops pull out, the U.S. presence is still heavy.  And you talked about that with our ambassador there.  Watch.

(Videotape from "Rock Center")

MR. KOPPEL:  I realize you can't go into it in any detail, but I would assume that there is a healthy CIA mission here.  I would assume that JSOC may still be active in this country, the joint special operations.  You've got FBI here. You've got DEA here.  Can, can you give me sort of a, a menu of, of who all falls under your control?

AMB.  JAMES JEFFREY:  You're actually doing pretty well, were I authorized to talk about half of this stuff.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Revealing.  The full interview tomorrow night, as your piece is tomorrow night on "Rock Center." Your point there, Ted, is that we've got a big footprint and a lot could still happen in Iraq.

MR. KOPPEL:  The point is Ron Paul was almost right last night.  You remember, and it was one of the overlooked points in the debate, he spoke of the 17,000, he spoke about civilian contractors who are still in Iraq.  We do have 17,000 people still in Iraq.  They're not all civilian contractors, but a great many of them are.  You've got a consulate in Basra, a consulate in Erbil.  The one in Basra is just less than 20 miles from the Iranian border; 1,320 Americans down there.  They are rocketed two or three times a week. They are about as vulnerable as any Americans have been since 1979 at the embassy in Tehran.  And if they were to be frontally attacked, and I'm suggesting that that's not unlikely at all, you're going to see the U.S. military come back in.  Because, while the ambassador said, "No, no, no, we're going to rely on the Iraqis to do the job," there is no way that the U.S. military will wait for the Iraqis to save those Americans, and they're going to need saving.

MR. GREGORY:  We will come back in just a minute, talk with our remaining moments with our panelists as we look at decision 2012.  Also, Ron Paul may be number three in the polls, but he's number one in the hearts of Twitter users. More on that right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Just a couple of moments left with our roundtable.  Look at trend tracker today.  It's what we've been talking about.  We go to the big screen.  Gingrich fending off attacks, that's been the biggest issue.  And our trend tracker, Romney/Perry, that $10,000 bet.  And Paul attacks Gingrich, as well, as our lead guest here this morning.  I'll do the take away bite in just a moment.  But, Governor Branstad, speaking Ron Paul, an interesting fact that came out this week, a study, he has got the most positive sentiment out there on Twitter.  At 55 percent, only 15 percent negative.  And it's almost just the reserve--reverse when it comes to President Obama.  Real quick, how much of a shot does Ron Paul have to be an upset winner there?

GOV. BRANSTAD:  Well, he's got the most bumper stickers, he's got the most yard signs, he's got the most enthusiasm.  But I don't know that you can translate that into a victory because, remember, the caucuses are January 3rd. A lot of the college students will be on their Christmas breaks.  So he, he definitely has a following out here.  And I can tell you, there are a lot of young people that are really disappointed with Obama.  He promised to be somebody who would bring America together.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.

GOV. BRANSTAD:  And his campaign is just the opposite--tear people apart, attack people.  We need a leader that's going to bring people together.  Ron Paul's been a consistent conservative.  You've got to give him credit.  I have concerns about his foreign policy.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Governor Branstad, thank you very much.

Chuck Todd, I won't play the sound bite.  We don't have much time.

MR. TODD:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  But, Senator Lindsey Graham, if the election were held...

MR. TODD:  Yep.

MR. GREGORY:  ...tomorrow, Newt would win, Newt Gingrich would win in South Carolina.

MR. TODD:  Here's why.  A majority of South Carolina Republican voters believe Newt Gingrich is a conservative.  A majority believe Mitt Romney is a moderate.  After--you look at the polling, it actually would be an upset if Mitt Romney was to win this nomination since a majority of Republican primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, everywhere we measured, view him as a moderate.  Moderates don't win Republican primaries these days.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Great conversation.  We'll be following it.

Thanks to all of you this morning.  Before we go, a quick reminder that I will be moderating the NBC/News Facebook debate on MEET THE PRESS on February 8th, live from New Hampshire.  Be sure to visit our Facebook page to join the conversation leading up to the debate.  That's at facebook.com/meetthepress.

Also, you can watch our weekly Press Pass conversation on our blog this morning.  I spoke with Kahlil Byrd and Elliot Ackerman from a group called Americans Elect about their efforts to revolutionize the way we nominate presidential candidates by using the power of the Internet.  It's a very interesting idea.  That's on our blog, 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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