updated 2/23/2012 11:55:57 AM ET 2012-02-23T16:55:57

Guests: Tom Brokaw, Howard Fineman, John Heilemann, Stephanie Cutter, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Alice Stewart, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, David Cay Johnston

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, HOST: Breaking news: The 20th Republican
presidential primary debate of the season has just ended in Mesa, Arizona,
and it took 46 minutes to get to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, DEBATE MODERATOR/CNN: Since birth control is the latest
hot topic. Which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?

(BOOS)

KING: As you can see --

MTIT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It`s a very popular question
you have.

KING: It is a very popular question, in the audience, as we can see.
Look, we`re not going to spend a ton of time on this. But please --

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Can I just make a point?

KING: Sure.

ROMNEY: These guys are giving you some feedback, John.

KING: I see that. I see that.

ROMNEY: I think they`re making it very clear.

GINGRICH: No, I think -- look, I think there`s --I want to make two -
- I want to make two quick points, John. The first is, there is a
legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on
religion, activities which any religion opposes. That`s legitimate.

KING: Sure is.

GINGRICH: But I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008
campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama
voted in favor of legalizing infanticide.

(APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: So let`s be clear here. If we`re going to have a debate
about who the extremist is is on these issues, it is President Obama, who
as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived
the abortion. It is not the Republican.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joining me now are: AOL/Huffington Post editorial director
and MSNBC political analyst, Howard Fineman; MSNBC political analyst, John
Heilemann, of "New York" magazine; and NBC News special correspondent, Tom
Brokaw.

Tom, going into the debate tonight, Rick Santorum was trying to
protect a national lead in the polls, and most importantly, most
immediately, possibly, his lead in Michigan.

Did you see anything in the dynamics of this debate tonight that you
think could effect where those polls are going?

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was a 15-
rounder, and they were all standing at the end. Obviously, Santorum now is
going to be the target of opportunity who`s going to the movement tonight
with Ron Paul on one side of him and Governor Romney on the other side.

I thought that Governor Romney had a pretty good night. I don`t, as
you know, like to declare winners and losers here, but call balls and
strikes. And Santorum was spending a lot of time defending his record in
the Senate by saying, look, I didn`t have any other choice but to support
Arlen Specter, you know, as an appropriations bill.

A lot of the evening was about explaining away positions that he had
supported, that on the campaign trail, he opposes. Whether that nicked him
or not, it`s very hard to know.

O`DONNELL: Let`s listen to one of those explanations. He got dragged
into trying to explain his history with earmarks, something that has become
-- something you don`t want to be tainted by in Republican politics. Let`s
listen to Rick Santorum on earmarks.

I guess we don`t have all of this tape ready right away. Howard
Fineman, the earmark -- now they`re telling me we have it. All right,
let`s listen to Rick Santorum on earmarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As you know, there`s a lot of anger in the base of the party
about some of the things that have happened in the past, and the Tea Party
especially. Now, earmarks, the pork barrel spending, it`s a tiny slice of
the budget. I think we all know that.

But if you talk to a Tea Party activist, they think it`s an example
and a gateway to corruption.

Senator, you have said there are good earmarks and bad earmarks, and
you have talked about your earmarks in the past. Any that you specifically
regret? And why have you criticized -- why do you think the money that
went to Governor Romney for security at the Olympics, why was that a bad
earmark?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor Romney asked for
that earmark. That`s really the point here. He`s out there on television
ads right now, unfortunately, attacking me for saying that I`m this great
earmarker when he not only asked for earmarks for the Salt Lake Olympics in
the order of tens of millions of dollars, sought those earmarks and used
them, and he did it as the governor of Massachusetts, $300 million or $400
million. He said I would be something like foolish if I didn`t try to go
out and get federal dollars.

So the idea that somehow the earmarks during the time that I was in
Congress were this thing that drove up spending in Washington, D.C., if you
actually look at it, as I said before, as a percentage of GDP, actually the
deficit -- some of the debt went down.

What happened is there was abuse. When abuse happened, I said, we
should stop the earmarking process.

But I did say there were good earmarks and bad earmarks. We wouldn`t
have the V-22 Osprey, which is the most essential air platform for our
Marines in particular, in the war against the radical Islamists. We
wouldn`t have it if it wasn`t for earmarks. That program would have been
killed under George Bush 41.

Dick Cheney of the Defense Department wanted to kill that. And many
of us, including myself, stood up and made sure that was there.

Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Howard, how do you score the earmarks inning of the
debate?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I score it as a complete
loser for Rick Santorum. I`d heard from his staff and his spinners over
the recent days and weeks about, hey, don`t go after us on earmarks,
because Mitt Romney asked for earmarks for Salt Lake City.

So what? If you`re an undecided, probably pretty conservative
Republican primary or caucus voter, and that`s how you have to look at
this, does Rick Santorum`s long and rather rambling answer on that satisfy
your concerns? The answer is no.

As Tom Brokaw pointed out, the whole body language of this debate
tonight was really Rick Santorum on the defensive about his years as a
legislator. Ironically, as Chuck Todd has pointed out on the Web, where
Rick Santorum was a team player for the Bush family. So he`s carrying the
weight of some legacy the conservative voters don`t really like.

And time and again, he had to explain legislative mechanics. He had
to say he`d learned his lesson. He had to say he wouldn`t vote that way
now.

I think if Rick Santorum was looking to consolidate through this event
his tenuous grip on the sort of national front-runner status in the race,
this event didn`t do it for him.

O`DONNELL: John Heilemann, with an eye on Michigan, which is the next
place where votes will be counted, Mitt Romney found himself talking about
the auto industry, of course, and the advantages of what he calls managed
bankruptcy over what President Obama took as action in intervening in the
automobile industry.

Let`s listen now to Mitt Romney on the auto industry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Go back to 2000 -- I think it was 2008, President Bush was
still in office, and the three chief executive officers in the three major
auto companies got in their private planes and flew to Washington and said,
please write us a check. I think they wanted $50 billion. And I wrote an
op-ed in the paper, and I said, absolutely not. Don`t write a check for
$50 billion. These companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy.

Because they put that money in, the president gave the companies to
the UAW. They were part of the reason the companies were in trouble,
giving these companies to the UAW was wrong.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: And, John, presumably, flying in private planes was wrong
in the Romney view of the situation.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN HEILEMANN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely right. Lawrence,
don`t talk about the way that you get back and forth from the East to West
Coast.

Look, I think that in Michigan, Lawrence, you`ve got a situation that
where if Rick Santorum is going to prevail there, Mitt Romney has most of
the Republican establishment lined up on his side. He has some favorite
son status -- obviously, he has favorite son status abundance, but that`s
working for him to some extent.

If Rick Santorum is going to win in Michigan, he`s got to line up
Christian conservatives and Tea Party voters. There are a large
contingents of those in Michigan.

And so, the question in this debate, to my mind, I thought Romney was
fine in terms of defending that answer by trying to pin the problems on the
UAW. I think the question in this debate was: how did Rick Santorum do in
terms of advancing his aims with those two voting groups?

And I thought that Mitt Romney on social conservatism was just as
strong tonight as Rick Santorum. I thought Santorum was a little bit --
brought his B game on even those issues. I think he`s been beaten up a lot
this last week, and he was not as strong, even on conservative terms on
those issues, as he has been in the past.

And I think on this anti-government stuff that drives the Tea Party, I
think Howard`s exactly right -- not only was he speaking legislative-ese
all night, but he put himself in a position where he`s rhetorically in the
grand sense reinforcing the Romney message which is Rick Santorum is a
Washington insider, Mitt Romney is an outsider. And that is an argument
that Rick Santorum has to overcome if he`s going to connect with Tea Party
voters. I think he did a very good of it tonight.

When he was asked to describe himself in one word, the obvious answer
should have been: conservative. Instead, he said "courage". And that was
a missed opportunity. I think that hurts him, too.

BROKAW: I think the other piece of that, Lawrence, is that he said
"courage" after he had had to explain away all those votes that, in fact,
did not show a lot of courage.

So, I mean, my guess is that we`ll hear some sort of an ad with Rick
Santorum saying, best defined by the word "courage," and then a whole
lineup of the votes that he did for earmarks and other things that he`s now
apologizing for.

O`DONNELL: He would not be the only senator who saw the courage to
compromise.

Tom, Iran came up as possibly the only real foreign policy issue that
occupied any time in the debate. I want to listen to what Rick Santorum
said about it, because it`s actually an echo of what everyone, except, of
course, Ron Paul said about Iran. Very, very hard-line on Iran.

Let`s listen to Rick Santorum.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: We need a new president, or we are going to have a
cataclysmic situation with a power that is the most prolific proliferator
of terror in the world, that will be able to do so with impunity, because
they will have a nuclear weapon to protect them for whatever they do. It
has to be stopped, and this president is not in a position to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Tom, that seemed to be the consensus among the top three
candidates tonight.

BROKAW: Yes, and, in fact, Governor Romney said that if he becomes
president, in fact, Iran won`t have a weapon, but if we re-elect President
Obama, in fact, they will continue to have a weapon.

Look, this is a very complicated issue, quite obviously. It`s very
complex. A lot of people believe these are not ideologues. That the
sanctions, in fact, are working against Iran. That Russian card had to be
played at some point, because he have entree to Iran.

The Israelis, plainly, with good reason, are extraordinarily
uncomfortable about it.

But at the same time, we have to look at what`s going on in Pakistan.
If you want to look at a center of terrorism, look at the west border areas
of Pakistan. This is -- this is a country with more than 100 nuclear
weapons, extraordinarily disabled -- right now, unstable. And that didn`t
come up tonight at all.

So, I think these are issues that are probably not best played out on
debate stages, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL: From where I`m sitting, Mitt Romney seems to be the most
disciplined debate preparer. You can see his homework once these debates
start.

And tonight, he demonstrated a new card trick in defense of his health
care plan in Massachusetts. He talked about Rick Santorum having endorsed
him after he had done that, or endorsed him running for president last time
around.

I want to listen to the new take Mitt Romney had tonight on what the
other candidates call Romneycare. Let`s listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Let`s not forget that four years ago, well after Romneycare
was put in place, four years ago, you not only endorsed me, you and Laura
Ingraham said, and this guy is a really conservative. Let`s not forget you
said that.

The senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen
Specter, the pro-choice senator of Pennsylvania, that you supported, and
endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for Obamacare.

If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter, we
would not have Obamacare. So don`t look at me, take a look in the mirror.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: OK, gang, that is best reshuffling of the deck I have ever
seen in a presidential debate.

Howard Fineman, there is Mitt Romney blaming Rick Santorum for
Obamacare.

FINEMAN: Well, and what made it worse, if you`re keeping score in the
debates is Rick Santorum took the bait. And then went into a long
explanation of why he voted for Arlen Specter, why he supported Arlen
Specter, why he backed Arlen Specter, because Specter was going to be a
reliable vote for Supreme Court justice nominees, et cetera.

And I can tell you that it`s not really a way to win the hearts of
undecided conservative Republican voters, to associate yourself with Arlen
Specter. It`s just not, because not only is he pro-choice, he`s pro-gun
control, he`s all the things that the last surviving liberal from
Pennsylvania in the Republican Party is going to be.

So I thought it was very shrewd tactics on the part of Mitt Romney,
there`s no doubt about it.

O`DONNELL: John Heilemann, it did seem to throw Santorum off. He
could never have been expecting -- he would never sit in that chair and
think, at some point tonight, I am going to be blamed for Obamacare by Mitt
Romney.

And you know, Romney`s thread there wasn`t that easy to follow, but it
was much easier to follow than what Santorum`s answer became.

HEILEMANN: Yes.

Yes, I`m sorry, I thought you were about to play tape there, Lawrence.

FINEMAN: Don`t do that.

HEILEMANN: I thought that throughout the night that Rick Santorum, on
that question, on a lot of questions, I thought Rick Santorum really seemed
to kind of, tonight, bring his B game. And he was -- he did not -- this
is, I think, could have been the most important debate of the entire cycle,
the 20th debate.

You had -- both of these candidates had important strategic
objectives. There`s a consensus out there in the world now, the Republican
world, that the if Rick Santorum wins Michigan, that it becomes very hard
for Mitt Romney to be the nominee. That raised the stakes hugely in this
game.

And I thought that Santorum was, in general, throughout, he made all
the specific mistakes that we`ve been talking about. But the general
affect was not of the momentum candidate, not the guy on the rise, not the
guy driving the contest. If you think about how well he performed in the
Florida debate, it was nothing like that tonight.

I don`t know if it had something to do with sitting around that table
and sort of slouching throughout it, but he did not have the kind of
aggressiveness and the kind of clarity of someone who is, at the moment, as
I said, the momentum candidate, and the guy who`s one win away from
conceivably knocking out the front-runner and opening a wide path to win
the nomination. He did not look like that man tonight, and I don`t exactly
understand why.

O`DONNELL: Tom Brokaw, finally, the audience to these debates, this
one started slow and it stayed slow for a while. It wasn`t like that one
where the first question to Newt Gingrich was a giant moment in the debate.
And what I`m wondering about is when an audience is 45 minutes in, and only
then does it start to get interesting, and then it gets a little sleepy
again, this is a two-hour drama, or it`s supposed to be a two-hour drama.
If it doesn`t sustain the drama, is it possible for the points that we
think are scored an hour and a half into this thing to actually register,
or has the audience kind of drifted into another place?

BROKAW: Well, it`s -- that, again, is very hard to know. Look, we`re
in the 15th rounds of these debates. They`ve been going on and on and on,
and there wasn`t that aha moment tonight, as we have seen in other debates.
I was thinking about, two-thirds of the way through, where`s Jeremy Lin
when we need him.

(LAUGHTER)

BROKAW: You know, a point guard to come in and shake things up.
Drain a couple of three-pointers, get a couple of assists.

But that`s where we are. And the fact is, Lawrence, as you know, both
in the hall, and those of us who are watching this are the people who are
dedicated to this process. And a lot of people will be catching up on this
debate tomorrow morning on "MORNING JOE" and on the morning television
cable shows and over the air, they`ll be reading about it in the newspaper.

I was just in Arizona over the weekend on other business. There
wasn`t a lot of buzz down there about the debate coming. Obviously, they
were paying a lot of attention to their politics. But they`ve got severe
economic problems in Arizona.

They`ve got -- on the other hand, they`ve got a lot of other good
things going on, starting to turn the corner. There was a lot more talk
about that than about the debate that was coming up.

So I`m not surprised that at this stage in the game that it got to
this point, I think to talk about what John was describing Rick Santorum
and the position that he was in, he learned, as all of them have, Newt,
Governor Romney, now Rick Santorum, that you can be on the offensive when
you`re not leading the pack. But once you get out front a little bit, then
you`re playing the defensive game. And you don`t have a lot of control
over it. You suddenly become the target, the lead dog, if you will. And
then that changes the DNA of the whole debate.

O`DONNELL: Tom Brokaw, John Heilemann and Howard Fineman, thank you
all very much for joining me tonight.

FINEMAN: Thanks, Lawrence.

HEILEMANN: Thanks, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL: Coming up, the Obama re-election team`s reaction to
tonight`s debate.

We`ll also hear what Newt Gingrich`s daughter thinks of his
performance and why Pete Hoekstra is trying to rewrite his campaign by
pretending that that horrible ad he ran never existed. It turns out the
polls are just disastrous now for Hoekstra.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, COMEDIAN: Here now we have a list of other movies
made about Mitt Romney. Number three, Mr. Romney doesn`t go to Washington.

Number two -- number two, dog on a hot car roof. That`s number two.

And the number one other movie about Mitt Romney, they`re just not
that into you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: The bottom line was, when I was in the United States
Senate, there was transparency and Congressman Paul, who is one of the most
prolific earmarkers in the Congress today, would tell you, and I`m not
criticizing, I`m just saying that`s a fact, that he -- he --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: I think you need a chance to say a word.

KING: Mr. Speaker, you were referenced by the governor, you first ,
then Congressman Paul.

Don`t worry. We`ll get to you, Congressman, I promise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: As the Republican candidates continue to fight for the
privilege of facing President Obama in presidential debates, the latest
"A.P." poll indicates that President Obama would beat Mitt Romney, 51 to
43. The president would beat Newt Gingrich, 52 to 42, in the current poll.
The president would beat Rick Santorum, 52 to 43. And the never to be
nominated Ron Paul, if he ever were, according to this current poll, would
be beaten 53 to 44.

Joining me now from Chicago is President Obama`s deputy campaign
manager, Stephanie Cutter.

Thank you very much for joining me tonight, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, OBAMA 2012: Hey, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL: The fascinating thing about the poll numbers is how
consistent the president`s number is, no matter who you put up against him,
including the utterly preposterous Ron Paul, who will never come close to
the nomination. There`s not that much difference between how the president
stands against Ron Paul than how he stands against, say, Mitt Romney or
Santorum. Ron Paul, 53-44, Romney, 51-43.

What does that tell you about both the president`s standing in the
polls and anyone with the word "Republican" attached to their name?

CUTTER: Well, I think that it tells you a couple of things. One,
that there is a now more than the majority of the American people who
support the president in what he`s done for this country. And more
importantly, trust him to stand by what he believes in.

And I think on the other side, there`s great dissatisfaction with
their candidates running for president, you know? And I don`t blame them.
After watching tonight`s debate, I`d be dissatisfied too.

But I think that`s what it`s a reflection of, that Republicans have
not coalesced around a candidate, they`re not satisfied with their
candidates. Mostly because they either don`t trust them or they don`t
agree with their policies.

O`DONNELL: Stephanie, I want to give you a chance to truth squad this
debate tonight. What do you think was the most egregious falsehood
advanced about President Obama tonight? Because every one of these
debates, of course, always does that.

CUTTER: Well, I guess the most egregious falsehood would be the
president`s position on Iran. You know, whether it was Mitt Romney or Rick
Santorum attacking the president for not being tough enough on Iran.

Ask any foreign policy expert out there, we have the toughest
sanctions in place today than we have in decades -- thanks to this
president. And I don`t think that he, you know, if not for one second will
take a backseat to any of those guys on that stage tonight in terms of
being right on foreign policy.

You know, presidents only get one choice, one chance to make the right
decision, and the president has consistently done that.

Now, look at Mitt Romney. What he didn`t say on the stage tonight is
that just four years ago, when asked the same question on Iran, he said
he`d have to check with his lawyers. Now, that does not make a commander
in chief, somebody who has to check with his lawyers.

What he also didn`t say is that he also in the past has said that he
wouldn`t have gone into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. That doesn`t make
a commander in chief either.

So I think that`s the most egregious falsehoods that were said
tonight. There were many others. We could go into the auto bailouts, if
we have the time.

O`DONNELL: Please do. You have the time. That was my next question.

None of these guys want to admit that the auto bailout worked.

CUTTER: Right.

O`DONNELL: And they all have the better idea that shouldn`t have let
them go into bankruptcy.

CUTTER: Right. So let`s just review the facts. I don`t think that
there`s anybody out there that wouldn`t say what was done in the auto
bailouts wasn`t a huge success in terms of saving an iconic industry,
protecting 1.4 million jobs, returning the autos to a competitive stance
that they haven`t had in decade, to building the cars of the future and
putting hundreds of thousands of people to work, and protecting hundreds of
communities all over this country that rely on the auto industry.

It was a huge success. And that taxpayer money has been paid back.

Now, let`s take Mitt Romney`s stance. We all know the famous op-ed
that he published in 2008 that said, let Detroit go bankrupt. And what he
meant by that is that he wasn`t going to provide a rescue loan to the
industry, to ensure that they could remain functioning while they went
through a structured bankruptcy. Not even his own Bain Capital would
provide the private financing. Private financing at that time did not
exist.

So if you have this incredible business experience and know how the
real economy works, you have to understand that private financing wasn`t
available at that time.

So what was available? A government rescue loan with conditions
attached -- conditions on restructuring, getting rid of excess and waste,
forcing everybody to have shared sacrifice, and making the industry more
competitive, manufacturing the cars of the future, making them more fuel
efficient. Those are the facts.

And Mitt Romney knew exactly what he was saying back then, when he
said, let Detroit go bankrupt. He meant, let them go bankrupt. Let them
liquidate. Let the auto industry no longer exist in this country. Those
are the facts.

O`DONNELL: Stephanie Cutter, I have to tell you, I didn`t see
anything in that debate tonight that seemed very threatening to the Obama
re-election campaign.

CUTTER: Well, you know, this race is still going to be close. You
know, this country is still very divided. But I think --

O`DONNELL: Well, that`s what the poll indicates. The poll indicates
anybody with the word "Republican" is going to get at least 45 percent of
the vote. So we`ll be counting somewhere between, you know, 51/49 or 52/48
is where it`s going to end up.

CUTTER: Right. And it was the same way four years ago, and we`ve got
to find a way to break through that.

And I think what we`re seeing right now is that the American people
understand that the president has put the country on a path -- a path of
rebuilding the economy, so that everybody has a fair shot to get ahead, of
rebuilding an economy that`s built to last, not based on bubbles or paper
profits or recklessness or greed. And that we`re making the things that
the rest of the world buys. We`re finally regaining or competitive edge.

And the American people see that that`s the vision the president is
pursuing. And we`ve got real accomplishments under our belt in what we`ve
been able to do in three short years, most of which the president has done
-- had to do on his own, without any Republican support across the aisle.

O`DONNELL: Stephanie Cutter with Obama 2012 -- thank you very much
for joining us tonight.

CUTTER: Thank you, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL: Coming up, we`re going to have representatives of all the
Republican campaigns joining me next.

And later, President Obama`s new corporate tax plan and how it will
put campaign pressure on Mitt Romney.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SANTORUM: The bottom line is that we have a problem in this country.
And the family is fracturing. Over 40 percent of children born in America
are born out of wedlock. How can a country survive if children are -- are
being raised in homes where it`s so much harder to succeed economically?

The left gets all upset, oh, look at him talking about these things.
Here`s the difference between me and the left. They don`t get this. Just
because I`m talking about it doesn`t mean I want a government program to
fix it. That`s what they do. That`s not what we do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: We`re back with more on tonight`s Republican debate.
Joining me now is Alice Stewart, national press secretary for Santorum for
President, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, senior adviser to Newt Gingrich, and
Romney supporter, Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

Thank you all for joining me tonight.

Alice Stewart, that was your guy leading into the segment, making a
point that just because I have private thoughts and a personal morality
about certain things, it doesn`t mean that I want government to do anything
about those and enforce those.

But in today`s "New York Times," Maureen Dowd made the point in her
column that that still worries her. She understands that distinction, when
candidates say that. But she says she has seen too much of politician`s
own personal moralistic thinking seep into their governing when they get in
office.

ALICE STEWART, SANTORUM NATL. PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think he made
a very good point. In that particular instance, he was talking about how
we`re getting away from the family unit, and we are seeing families that
are single parent families. And while he respects and admires single
mothers, we`re seeing a growing number of children having children, and
children having their children, -- more and more unwed people having
children.

But he also made the point when they were talking about contraception,
he has his own personal belief on that. He personally does not believe --
his faith does not have him support contraception. But he has also not
stood in the way of women who make that option. And he also feels that
with the way that President Obama is acting, we have the federal government
stepping in on personal decisions.

And this has become an infringement on religious freedoms. And we
can`t have that. That`s not the government`s role to do that. But one
thing that Rick made abundantly clear is while he has personal opinions on
many issues, it`s not the federal government`s position to step in and do
anything about it.

O`DONNELL: Jackie Gingrich Cushman, I want to congratulate your
candidate. Please pass on this congratulations to him. I thought he said
the single smartest thing in the debate, in the toughest area of the debate
for Republicans, which was earmarks.

Newt Gingrich was the only person there who defended the earmark
process and warned a Republican audience that with a Democratic president,
you will want people in the House of Representatives, if the Republicans
control it, to be putting earmarks in the spending that specifically
directs how the money will be spent, rather than leaving it to a Democratic
president to spend that money.

And that, of course, would work both ways. I think both parties would
want to have that if they had the opposite party in the White House and
they controlled the legislative process. So I`m giving your guy all the
big points tonight, the gold star for the one thing that I thought actually
was completely true and made sense.

But do you think your audience hates the word earmarks so much? Do
you think it`s possible that people listened to him on that?

JACKIE GINGRICH CUSHMAN, GINGRICH SR. ADVISER: Oh, I think they`ll
listen to him. But I think he showed, time and time again, on every answer
that he had, he rose above the question. To your point right then, he
rose above the question. He explained it in a way that made sense.

And I think that was your favorite part. My favorite part were two
things. One was he said he was cheerful, because he is cheerful. And if
you could watch him during the debate when others were talking, you`d
actually see him smile and laughing.

The other part, which I think is very key, which no one else in this
campaign -- no other candidate, including President Barack Obama can say,
is that my father can get things done in Washington and not just on the
campaign trail. He is the only candidate, including President Barack
Obama, who has balanced the budget four years in a row, who reformed
welfare.

And again, Santorum mentions that, but he did that under dad`s
leadership as the speaker. So again, dad is the only candidate who could
actually accomplish conservative things in Washington. That`s what we need
today.

O`DONNELL: Now, I know my audience is expecting me to jump in here
and wrestle with each one of you on these spinning items that you`re -- but
we don`t have the time for that. So I`m just going to be getting what you
have and moving along quickly.

Thaddeus McCotter, I want to play something that Mitt Romney said
about what he calls the worst attack on religion in the history of this
country. And that attack is being launched by President Obama. Let`s
listen to what your candidate said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I don`t think we`ve seen, in the history of this country, the
kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious
tolerance that we`ve seen under Barack Obama. Most recently, of course --
most recently, requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees
and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth
control, sterilization, and the Morning After pill. Unbelievable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Thaddeus McCotter, with his words were that this is the
worst attack on religious conscience in the history of this country. How
would he rank and where would he rank in terms of an attack on religious
conscience when the federal government outlawed the practice of polygamy,
the central religious tenant of his religion, that then forced his family
to flee the country, give up on America, and flee to Mexico?

How would he rank that compared to what he has seen involving
contraception politics in the last two weeks?

REP. THADDEUS MCCOTTER (R), MICHIGAN: Well, I think that`s really
question directed at him, especially given his Mormon faith. I think he
can answer that question for himself. As a practicing Catholic, as someone
who understands it across the board, there are those who do not want to ban
contraception, such as myself.

But there are those who understand that the federal government has no
business trying to coerce people into going against the central tenants of
their religion. And Lawrence, I would ask a simple question too, whether
or not it is the largest infringement of religious liberty -- there is an
implication that it clearly is, and a violation of the First Amendment free
exercise.

I personally would think that some of the fugitive slave laws and
others of the past, that forced individuals against their conscience to
return runaway human beings back to their purported masters would probably
be one of the greatest infringements of religion in the history of the
country.

O`DONNELL: Would you say -- would you disagree with your candidate
and say, for example, what you just cited, forcing people to return slaves
to their masters, that that was, in fact, a worse invasion of religious
belief than what we`ve seen in the contraception situation over the last
couple of weeks?

MCCOTTER: Well, I think I only bring it up to show that when your
Constitutional rights are infringed, it doesn`t matter to what degree.
They`re not supposed to be infringed at all. And I think that would be the
common ground that all people should be able to come to as Americans,
recognizing our God-given rights as put into the Constitution.

They are to be protected and guaranteed against the government itself.

O`DONNELL: Alice Stewart, does Rick Santorum think that providing for
contraception coverage in health care policies is a bigger invasion of
religion than the federal government`s outlawing polygamy, a central tenant
of Mormonism, or what Thaddeus McCotter just mentioned, the government
ordering people to, against their own religious conscience and beliefs,
return slaves to their masters?

Does he think that contraception is worse than those two?

STEWART: He thinks, first and foremost, we have the right to practice
the religion of our choice. And it`s our individual choice to practice the
religion how we see fit. And it`s not the government`s role to come in and
dictate what we do.

O`DONNELL: But except he doesn`t. No one thinks that. No one on
that stage believes that a religion that allows polygamy should be allowed
to practice freely in the United States. Not one of them believes that.
So let`s not pretend that they believe in complete religious freedom.

None of them do.

STEWART: Well, certainly, he`s got his views and positions on that.
But the overall context that has come up for the past week, more than a
week, is the government intrusion on religious liberties. And we talked
about contraception. Another issue this evening was abortion.

Unfortunately, Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on that issue. And he
started out the debate tonight quoting Costanza, when you hear the audience
applause then stop. There`s also another famous Costanza quote, where it
says, it`s not a lie if you believe it.

There`s many things that Mitt Romney said this evening that were
complete falsehoods. And he misrepresented the facts on many issues when
it came to abortion, when it came to the bailouts, when it comes to cap and
trade. And these are things that people need to stand and read and follow
up exactly where he stands.

He says that he supported the bailout for Wall Street for a specific
reason. But he has not been consistent on that. You can`t say that you
support one particular bailout, but you don`t support another. Whereas we
have Rick Santorum who feels that it`s not the government`s role to bailout
anyone at any time.

We need the free market to act. In the free market, in many cases,
there are winners and losers. And we can`t decide. And we can`t pick
winners in a free market society.

O`DONNELL: That`s going to have to be THE LAST WORD on the debate
tonight. I`m sorry. We`ve run out of time. Alice Stewart, Jackie
Cushman, Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, thank you all very, very much for
joining me tonight.

STEWART: Thank you, Lawrence.

MCCOTTER: Thank you.

CUSHMAN: Thank you.

O`DONNELL: Coming up in the Rewrite, the return of the ugliest
campaign ad of the year.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: The ugliest political ad of the year is back in the
Rewrite tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Michigan Senator Debby Spend It Now.
Debby spends so much American money, you borrow more and more from us.
Your economy get very weak; ours get very good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: The campaign that ran that ad is now trying to do more
than Rewrite it. They`re trying to erase it from their campaign history.
The actress who appeared in the ad, as we`ve previously reported, is not a
Chinese citizen. She is a Californian who doesn`t speak with an accent,
and is a graduate of UC Berkeley, one of the finest colleges in the world.

She bravely stepped forward last week and publicly apologized for her
role in the ad, saying she is deeply sorry and feels horrible about her
participation in the ad.

The candidate who approved that message, Republican Pete Hoekstra,
who`s running for Senate in Michigan against Democrat Debbie Stabenow, has
been sliding in the polls very badly since that ad went on the air. And
that trend continues in our NBC News/Marist poll, released today. Hoekstra
is now trailing Stabenow by 21 points.

And so the Hoekstra campaign, after defending the ad, has quietly
scrubbed the ad from the web. It`s gone from Hoekstra`s Facebook page,
gone from Youtube, but the stain on the campaign remains, a 21-point stain.

It could turn out that what this actress did in Pete Hoekstra`s ad
will do more to re-elect Senator Debbie Stabenow than anyone who appears in
the Stabenow campaign ads.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: President Obama obviously wants a serious presidential
campaign debate about corporate taxes. And that`s why he released his new
corporate tax plan today, so the Republicans could fall all over themselves
tonight, fighting against the very idea that corporations pay anything even
close to their fair share of taxes. But they were too busy talking about
bombing Iran and the evils of contraception to get to corporate taxes and
many other subjects that went undiscussed.

Joining me now is Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kay Johnston,
columnist for "Reuters" and professor at Syracuse Law School. Professor,
the Obama plan is out. It is a fascinating plan in that it cuts the
corporate tax rate from 35 to 28. Now, right away, some of President
Obama`s supporters will say, wait a minute, he`s cutting corporate taxes.

But the important lesson in cutting tax rates is, if you also
eliminate certain kinds of deductions, you can end up getting more in tax
revenue as a result. A simple exercise for the audience, imagine we cut
your income tax rate, but we then also eliminated your mortgage deduction.
You might end up paying a lot more in taxes.

How does this shake out, when you look at the whole Obama plan?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY: Well, the president is being
quite consistent in his plan. The reason the figure is 28 percent is
that`s what the work done by Treasury and the Congressional Budget Office
indicates that the tightening items the president would put in will allow
without a loss of revenue.

It`s essentially a revenue-neutral plan. And if you believe the
Republicans and the president on this, it should lead in the future to
higher profits and, therefore, more revenue.

I`m a little more skeptical of that side of it. But the idea here is
to be revenue neutral. There`s also a provision to lower the tax rate for
manufacturing companies, to treat them differently, and effectively tax
them at 25 percent, instead of 28, on the theory that this will cause
manufacturing to come back into the country, even though it`s super low
labor rates that are really driving, moving manufacturing offshore.

O`DONNELL: So, basically, he is able to cut the corporate tax rate by
also eliminating or reducing some corporate tax loopholes. That`s what
gives him the money that allows him to do it. But let`s go to the
manufacturing, because that`s really what everybody really cares about
here.

Do we have any experience in the tax code of stimulating manufacturing
by tweaking the tax code this way?

JOHNSTON: Temporarily in the past. We`ve had things called
investment tax credits, which applied only to investment within the United
States. And during the Bush administration and the Reagan administration,
we had, for brief periods of time, special rules for utilities, which is
mostly electric utilities, giving them a lower tax rate.

But in terms of manufacturing, except for that, no. And the general
principle in tax is, you should tax all chips the same, whether they`re
potato chips or microchips.

O`DONNELL: Yeah, I`ve got to say, I have an aversion to this kind of
tax policy, where we think through tax policy, we can create certain kinds
of economic behavior, especially at the macro level of industries like
manufacturing. The fact that manufacturing now would get a 25 percent rate
instead of a 28 simply means we will be manufacturing a lot more tax
lawyers, who will be trying to figure out how to call your business
manufacturing.

That`s the first thing that happens.

JOHNSTON: Hamburgers are the classic example of that. People will
argue that that`s an assembly line production. You`ve got to put
everything between the patty and it`s manufacturing. It`s not. But there
are people who will make arguments like that.

O`DONNELL: Well, yeah, it`s easy to say it`s not. But when you
actually get into trying to define it in tax law as you write it, it
becomes very, very difficult. And that`s where -- that`s where I grew my
aversion to this stuff, is when I was writing tax law on the Finance
Committee and you -- someone gets one of these ideas.

And you say, OK, great, how do we write that so it doesn`t apply to
hamburgers,. And it`s a very difficult thing to do. And so --

JOHNSTON: A little like obscenity.

O`DONNELL: Yes, exactly. But it certainly does give the president a
political argument here on two fronts. One is, he is thinking about
manufacturing. He is trying to do something about manufacturing. And he`s
thinking about, in particular, what they need in relation to the tax code.
But then also, he`s thinking about corporate fairness, fairness in the tax
code extending over to the corporate side.

And what do you see coming out of the Republican side of the campaign
that might in any way effectively counter the Obama position?

JOHNSTON: I don`t. I`ve been looking at their plans. And there are
lots of incongruities in them. Romney`s plan that he put out today says at
the very top of the page that we have an obligation to tax as much as we
spend. My words, not his.

And yet he proposes 20 percent across the board cut in tax rates,
which would be running huge red ink budget. And I`m sure that the Romney
campaign will say that that`s wrong. But the math is just not going to
support what they`re doing.

Romney claims that lower tax rates will lead sole proprietors, people
who file a Schedule C to hire more people. Well, we did that in 2001.
Where are all the jobs if that works?

O`DONNELL: Yes, it`s not going to. David Cay Johnston, thank you
very much for your time tonight.

JOHNSTON: Thank you.

O`DONNELL: And we`re out of time. THE ED SHOW is up next.


END

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