MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, a special edition of MEET THE PRESS, previewing Super Tuesday, the big prize in the GOP race for the White House. After Michigan, can Mitt Romney build on his lead and solidify himself as the presumptive Republican nominee?
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough and that's all that counts.
MR. GREGORY: All eyes now on battleground Ohio. Can Santorum win there and chart a course to the nomination? And can Newt Gingrich win his home state of Georgia as he tries to re-emerge as the Romney alternative? We have it all covered this morning. With us, Newt Gingrich; House GOP leader and Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, who will wade into the nomination fight; and with a view from the Democrats, party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Plus, our political roundtable this morning, what to look for Tuesday. And the president's emerging campaign, on the road, looking under the hood, and fighting for middle class votes.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I place my bet on the American worker. And I'll make that be every day of the week.
MR. GREGORY: With us, Republican strategist Mike Murphy, senior political analyst for Time magazine Mark Halperin, Democratic Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed, and NBC's Savannah Guthrie.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. It's crunch time now, 48 hours to go before 11 states vote on Super Tuesday. The Republican race is coming down to a battle for delegates and Mitt Romney is in the lead winning his fifth straight contest last night in Washington state. Final results show Romney beating second place finisher Ron Paul 38, 25; Santorum in third, with 24 percent; and Newt Gingrich a distant fourth with 10 percent. The former speaker is counting on a big win Tuesday in his home state of Georgia. He joins us here this morning.
But first, we have some new Super Tuesday polls to debut this morning, so I want to turn to my partner, NBC's political director Chuck Todd to take us inside the numbers. The New York Times points it out this morning, Chuck, it's now all about the math and the map.
MR. CHUCK TODD: It is. Ohio, the marquee race, wedged right in between Mitt Romney's boyhood home state of Michigan, and of course, Pennsylvania, the home state of Santorum. Here's what we have. Nearly a dead heat here, Santorum 34; 32. What's interesting here, the early voted advantage, David, that Romney had in Michigan and other states, he does not have here. He only leads four among those--by 4 points among those folks who have already voted. Santorum dominant among conservative voters, Romney dominant among those voters that care most about electabilty. Now, of course, the other marquee race on Super Tuesday was supposed to be Virginia, but two people failed to get on the ballot: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. So these are the only two folks on the ballot and look at this, Mitt Romney, a commanding lead here, 69 percent over Ron Paul, with 26 percent. Anything over 50 percent, Mitt Romney, wins all 46 delegates. But we did do a what if and look at this. Romney's lead would've been cut in half had Santorum and Gingrich made the ballot. Romney at 36, Santorum at 28, Gingrich, Paul down in last.
But of course, this is less about primary, more about delegates. Here's the map. Super Tuesday, 424 delegates going to be handed out Tuesday night in 11 different states. As far as who's going to win how many states, Mitt Romney probably guaranteed at least four wins--Vermont, Massachusetts, Idaho, already won the straw poll in Wyoming--could win as many as eight or nine states. We shall see. But here's what to watch for, it's about delegates. Hundred and eighty to 200 delegates would be a good night for the Romney campaign. I did some back of the envelope math, David, I got him up to 211. We'll see, it depends if he gets majorities in Idaho, places like that. Three other states to watch, though: Ohio, perception victory there for Santorum; Tennessee, the one Southern state Romney has a shot at winning. It could put the nomination away; and then of course, Georgia, does Newt Gingrich move on? Here's a poll, Mason-Dixon has Gingrich up 38 to 24. Mitt Romney, though, spending today in Atlanta.
MR. GREGORY: Should be interesting. Chuck Todd, thank you very much.
Let's turn now to the Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Speaker, welcome back to the program.
FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): David, it's good to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: I want to talk about the campaign and the numbers that I just went through with Chuck Todd, but I have to ask you about access to contraception. I realize it's not at the, the core of your stump speech, but it is a debate that is certainly highly charged here in Washington and Congress...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: No.
MR. GREGORY: ...and on the airwaves.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: No, it's...
MR. GREGORY: But it is, Mr. Speaker. Let me just take you through Rush Limbaugh's commentary about this this week, about a young law student here who testified about access to contraception for health reasons, something that he's now apologized for. Let me play it.
MR. RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.
MR. GREGORY: Limbaugh issued an apology yesterday, which many people may not know about, a portion of which reads as following, "In this instance I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices." How much damage has this done?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: You know, David, I am astonished at the desperation of the elite media to avoid rising gas prices, to avoid the president's apology to religious fanatics in Afghanistan, to avoid a trillion dollar deficit, to avoid the longest period of unemployment since the Great Depression and to suddenly decide that Rush Limbaugh is the great national crisis of this week.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: There's no debate about access to contraception. There is a debate, which Cardinal George of Chicago has pointed out, is a war against the Catholic Church. You do have this weird situation where President Obama apologizes to Islamic extremists while waging war against the Catholic Church. That's the language, by the way, of the Catholic bishops. You have an issue here of whether the government can coerce the Catholic Church, not just into a contraception, but into sterilization and abortion, something I don't find any reporter wants to talk about. You have a president who voted for infanticide as a, as a state senator, who represents the most extreme pro-abortion position in America. So if you want to have a dialogue about this, David...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...let's set the record straight. Barack Obama, as a state senator, voted to allow doctors to kill babies if they survived the abortion. Barack Obama, as president, in the most radical anti-religious move made by a--by any president, is trying to coerce the Catholic Church at a time when he's been told by the bishops...
MR. GREGORY: Well, Mr. Speak...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...that would have to give up every single hospital--wait a--let me finish. They would have--this is what they say.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: They would have to give up every single hospital, they would have to give up every single religious--every single university and college associated with the church because he is asking them to violate their religious beliefs. Now you want--if you want a debate...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...over whether or not the president of the United States should be able to impose his views on a religious institution...
MR. GREGORY: All right. And what he...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...and whether America's now a secular country, let's have that debate.
MR. GREGORY: Can I just get to my question? Do you think it was harmful...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: ...that Limbaugh--certainly an influential voice in the conservative grass roots and you well know that--was it appropriate for him to apologize? Do you think he's done damage to the debate that you're now getting into?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: OK. Look, I think--I think it was appropriate for Rush to apologize, I'm glad he apologized. Do you think the president owes an apology to all the men and women in uniform who he, frankly, abandoned when he apologized to religious fanatics in Afghanistan? What's your opinion, David?
MR. GREGORY: Well...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Should the president apologize to men and women in uniform that he abandoned?
MR. GREGORY: Well, I'm going to continue with my question, so...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: If you want to get into a discussion about apologies, I'm happy to discuss it.
MR. GREGORY: I'm happy--well, so my question, though, is you, you want the other side to appreciate your view, which is that this is a religious liberty question at the heart of this access to contraception.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Can you appreciate the view of those who disagree with you, that this is an attack on women's rights? That's their view, reproductive rights, access to contraception?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well...
MR. GREGORY: And in the extreme that it's some sort of war on women?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: It's not...
MR. GREGORY: Do you appreciate that view at all?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Wait, wait. Nobody's blocking anyone from having access to contraception. No one. The young lady who testified can get access to contraception. Nobody said she couldn't. The question is, should a Catholic institution, or for that matter, the Ohio Christian University, which is a Protestant institution, which is a very pro-life institution, which is now being told it will have to pay for abortion pills. Now should, should, should a Protestant fundamentalist institution be dictated to by Washington politicians over whether or not it can have its own religious beliefs or have we become a country where it's OK to go to church on Sunday morning for one hour, but let's not actually express those beliefs the other--the rest of the week. Now I think this is, this is the most fundamental assault on religious liberty in American history despite every effort by the elite media to distort what it's about. It's not about access to contraception. People have--people who want to can get access to contraception every day. That young lady can get access to contraception. It is a question about whether or not a religiously affiliated institution should be coerced by the federal government.
MR. GREGORY: So it seems to me this, in your view, is actually a pretty fundamental issue, you just don't like the framing of it. But the fact that it gets raised is something that you think will certainly get you animated, you think it's certainly going to energize a lot of voters on both sides of the aisle.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Right. And I, I, I don't like the framing because I think the framing was false. That young lady has access to contraception every day. I mean, there's no place in America where it's illegal to go get contraception. What, what the question is, is should a religiously affiliated institution be required to provide abortion pills, should they be required to provide sterilization? Remember, the Obama rule was a lot more than just contraception. It--and by the way, Mitt Romney was on the wrong side of this issue in Massachusetts where he instructed the Catholic hospitals would be required to issue abortion pills against their religious beliefs.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let, let...
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: So this is a very serious fundamental fight about religious liberty.
MR. GREGORY: OK. Fair enough. Let's move on to some of the, the other issues and also the state of your campaign.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: OK.
MR. GREGORY: Bottom line: How important is Georgia? If you don't win there, can you keep going?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Look, I thought it was, I thought it was vital to the campaign and we focused on it and as a result, despite a lot of money spent against me, we're doing very well and I think we're going to win decisively. And it is the biggest state in terms of delegates, it's the biggest state on Super Tuesday and I though, frankly, as I said this earlier about Romney in Michigan and...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: ...about Santorum in Pennsylvania, it's very hard for one of the major candidates to not carry their home state and continue to move forward. So we felt it was very important, we feel very good about it, and I'll be back again tomorrow night and on, on Tuesday morning I'll be at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce. So we have really worked very hard to make sure we could carry Georgia. And all the polls now indicate we will carry Georgia.
MR. GREGORY: You've expressed concern about conservatives being split. As long as you're in the race and Santorum's in the race, the anti-Romney candidate is splitting up those votes. What is your case about why Santorum should give up the fight, why he's, in your view, not an electable candidate?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, look, I, I accept the fact that he can run as long as he wants to. We had this dialogue about a month and a half ago. You know, I, I've had seven people or seven different surges, two of them by Herman Cain, in which various people came and went, and I keep coming back. I've twice been the, the front-runner in the national polls and I think with $2.50-a-gallon gasoline and with an American energy plan designed to give us independence from the Middle East so that no American president will ever again bow to a Saudi king, I think that we're coming back again for the third time. But Rick has every right to run, but I do think outside of industrial states, having been a very big union senator, having voted against Right to Work, having voted for Davis-Bacon, which cost billions of dollars in order to prop up the unions and having voted for every minimum wage increase the unions wanted, Santorum has a harder time when he gets outside the industrial states. But in a sense, he and I represent two parts of conservatism. I'm much more solution oriented, much more willing to do things like have personal Social Security savings accounts for young people, more willing to talk about the kind of solutions we need with being able to produce enough oil and gas to be literally independent of the Middle East. And I think, in that sense, we have different approaches to how we'd represent conservatism.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you about Iran, something that President Obama spoke out about in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine. And this is a portion of that interview in the context of keeping all options on the table. He said, "I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say." Mr. Speaker, is there really daylight between your view of how to deal with Iran and President Obama's?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Well, I can't tell because I, I can, I can never tell from this particular president what, you know, what, what's the next step. The, the, the sanctions process hasn't worked, we've now had three years of talking about how tough we're going to be, and the Iranians keep developing a nuclear capability. Just--you know--and I think that we have to recognize that. This is a dictatorship that we had a chance to really affect a couple of years ago and did nothing. And so I, I don't know what the president is going to do or what he's going to say.
My view is that an Israeli prime minister could not possibly allow the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel is such a small country, it's so compact in population that two or three, or at the most four nuclear weapons would be a second Holocaust. No Israeli prime minister could morally accept that risk. And I think it's useful for us to say to the Iranians, "The fact is you're not going to get nuclear weapons and the only question is whether you want to be hit militarily to prove that or whether you accept it diplomatically, but it's not going to happen." I don't believe--I think the Iranians do not believe him and I think that's why they are digging their, their--all of the, all of the Iranian facilities now are being dug underground and they're being designed to withstand a bombing campaign and I think that's a very bad sign.
MR. GREGORY: A final political point, Mr. Speaker, with just a, a few seconds left. Given how hard-fought this primary campaign has been so far, if Mitt Romney is the eventual nominee, do you think it's possible for him to effectively unite the Republican Party?
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Oh, sure. Look, whoever the nominee is, and we actually discussed this a little bit when we were all three together in Ohio yesterday, whoever the nominee is, we are going to work together to defeat Barack Obama, period. People shouldn't be at all confused about that. The re-election of Barack Obama is such a disaster to the future of this country that I think you'll find the Republican candidates come firmly together behind the nominee.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we will leave it there. Mr. Speaker, as always, thank you very much.
FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: Joining me now, House Majority Leader, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Mr. Leader, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): David, it's good to be here.
MR. GREGORY: So a big primary on Tuesday. You have not chosen sides here in this Republican nomination fight. Are you prepared to say who you're with this morning?
REP. CANTOR: David, yes. Because what I have seen, as you said, a very hard-fought primary throughout the last couple of months. And we have seen now that the central issue of this campaign is about the economy, and the country's got to make a choice, who's going to best be able to lead this economy back to a growth mode, create jobs so people can feel better about the future. And I just think there's one candidate in the race who can do that and that's Mitt Romney. You know, Mitt Romney is, is the only candidate in the race who's put forward a bold, pro-growth, pro-jobs plan for the future. You know, a lot of the things that he's talking about in his plan we're working on in the House of Representatives, and that's why I look to Super Tuesday, I look to Mitt Romney winning all of Virginia's delegates. In fact, I cast my vote already in Virginia for Mitt Romney and I'm here today to tell you that I'm endorsing Mitt Romney in his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
MR. GREGORY: Why do you think he uniquely can beat President Obama?
REP. CANTOR: Well, you know, Mitt, Mitt is the only one in the race who knows how to create jobs. He's the only one who's put forward a bold plan to do that. If you look at, at Mitt Romney's economic plan, what it does is it lowers taxes for everyone who pays income taxes, it will result in reduced red tape for small businesses, it'll help us get back on track. That's why I think that Mitt Romney is the man for this year. I believe this is a historic election, there's no question about it, the kinds of challenges we face. He's the only one in the race who has put forward these kinds of solutions. And I think he can beat Barack Obama in November.
MR. GREGORY: Why is it so tough for him? What's the problem that he's having with conservatives in the party that has gotten him to a point where not even Super Tuesday represents an opportunity for him to slam the door shut?
REP. CANTOR: Well, again, this hard-fought primary has been full of all kinds of issues, but one thing that can bring people together in this country is, is the economy and jobs. It's the same situation we're dealing with in Congress, and that is we're looking for ways to bring people together. This plan, this pro-growth plan that Mitt Romney has put forward is something that I think the more people look into the details and see that plan, the more they will rally behind Mitt Romney. And you can see, I mean, he just had a double-digit win last night in Washington, I suspect he's going to do very well on Tuesday in Super Tuesday.
MR. GREGORY: In your own state, Santorum and Gingrich failed to get on the ballot. Was that a sign to you that these are weak candidates who are not ready for the nomination?
REP. CANTOR: Well, clearly I think their campaigns were not in the preparation mode early enough to do what they needed to do to get on the ballot. And at this point, the voters of Virginia have two choices and that is to vote for Mitt Romney or to vote for Ron Paul...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
REP. CANTOR: ...who did qualify to get on the ballot. Obviously there's a potential, people would like to write in. But again, I do think that Mitt Romney's going to win all of Virginia's delegate votes on Tuesday.
MR. GREGORY: Well, he is--he's the only one on the ballot, so it puts him in a strong position to do that.
REP. CANTOR: Well, he's, he's got Ron Paul on the ballot as well.
MR. GREGORY: Right. You have been vetted to be a vice presidential candidate back in 2008, you're endorsing Romney now. Would you be open to being considered for that role this time around?
REP. CANTOR: No. This is about, this is about Mitt Romney and making sure that he is put into office. And no, this is not about that. I am--I'm not open to that, I am privileged to feel that I can represent the people of Virginia in Congress and obviously voted by, by my colleagues to be majority leader and look forward to serving in that capacity under an--a Romney presidency.
MR. GREGORY: Not, not open to being vice president?
REP. CANTOR: No. No.
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk about this issue that I talked about with Speaker Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh's comments in this fight over contraception on the airwaves and in Congress, in the House and the Senate. What do you think of what Rush Limbaugh said and how he got into this controversy?
REP. CANTOR: You know, David, Rush Limbaugh has apologized. I don't condone that type of language in any arena, including the political arena. It was...
MR. GREGORY: You think he was dead wrong?
REP. CANTOR: It was--it--yes, it was insulting, and Rush has said as much.
MR. GREGORY: He has a powerful influence. Mitt Romney, the guy you just endorsed, has not come out to repudiate Rush Limbaugh. Do you think he missed an opportunity to stand up to that wing of the party and say, to say stop it. We should be focused on the economy and not contraception?
REP. CANTOR: I, I, I think, there's no question that Mitt Romney's candidacy is about the economy, and you mentioned...
MR. GREGORY: But my question is, did he miss an opportunity to spell this out? He did not repudiate. He didn't use language as strong as you just did against Rush Limbaugh.
REP. CANTOR: Well, again, I think Mitt Romney has been very clear. He is somebody who's focused on the economy, this issue, and Rush has apologized.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
REP. CANTOR: So I'm sure, you know, if you ask Mitt Romney, David, I'm sure he would also agree those were insulting words, just as Rush characterized his own language.
MR. GREGORY: Did the House make a mistake by not having Sandra Fluke testify in the first place at, at a, at a hearing that the first panel dominated by men on this issue of the HHS ruling and contraception being covered by insurance? Do you think House make a mistake initially giving some power to this issue?
REP. CANTOR: David, this issue is about religious freedom. I mean, think about it. It is the Obama administration and the president telling the Catholic Church what the Catholic faith means and holds. You know, to me and to you, we are members of a minority faith. This country stands for religious freedom. So many people in the world actually come here for that reason alone, so you can practice your faith. It is central to who we are as a country. And, and that...
MR. GREGORY: But the rule says that, that you can exercise conscience, but the insurance company would have to directly provide access to contraception and insurance coverage for those women who are employed.
REP. CANTOR: What, what the rule does is it basically allows for an exception to the rule if a faith-only ministers or deals with people of that faith. Now you know our religion as well as the Catholic Church and many other religions are about philanthropy and charity to all, and for the government to sit here and tell a faith what they can and can't do is just inappropriate. And that's what this issue's about. And again, there is a stark difference as to who believes what in this. And that's why I believe if Mitt Romney is president, we're not going to have this issue of confusion around religious freedom.
MR. GREGORY: Are you concerned, or I, should I say, do you appreciate the view of women like the, the chairman of the, the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who will come here in just a moment, and say that this is about reproductive rights. This is about rights for women.
REP. CANTOR: It is...
MR. GREGORY: Can you appreciate that concern on the part of women?
REP. CANTOR: Well, this is not. Nobody's denying access. No, it's not about that. It is about the administration and the president saying to the Catholic Church that we know what your faith holds and you have to abide by that. It would be like saying to the--those of us in the Jewish faith that, you know, we know what the laws of Kashrut, being kosher means, and we're going to tell you what that means. That's not who we are in this country. That's what the rule is about, and that's why it has no place in, in American politics. And, and again, I think it's very important that we uphold the tenets of religious freedom. It is at the core of who we are as a country.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the economy. The Dow Jones industrial average across that threshold of 13,000 this past week before falling back, getting back to where it was before the financial crisis. That's an important psychological boost for a lot of Americans. Is it more difficult as a political matter for Mitt Romney or you as majority leader in the House, to make the case that this president has failed to lead economic recovery?
REP. CANTOR: Listen, what is good for our party is good for the country and vice a versa. All of us want to see a better economy. I think it is fair to say that too many people are still out of work. If you look at how jobs are created in this country, most of them come from small businesses, and over the last three years we've seen a reduction in the amount and number of start-up businesses by 23 percent. And that's what Mitt Romney's economic plan gets at. It tries to say, we're going to create an environment for investors and entrepreneurs to start creating jobs, start businesses again. You know, we got a lot of competition out there in the world. And, you know, it is important for America to succeed. Not only for all of us here at home but, frankly, all the issues that you've talked about on this show that we face abroad, America has a critical leadership role there and we have got to fix our ailing economy. And that's what Mitt Romney's plan does.
MR. GREGORY: And part of that, of course, I wonder as a, as a leader in the Congress, if you would counsel Republicans running for president not to use gas prices as a political club against the president when it really is a failure of leadership, is it not, on the part of Republicans and Democrats going back decades here, to fail to achieve energy independence and then be subject to the winds of--whims, rather, of instability in the Middle East that makes gas prices go up and down.
REP. CANTOR: There's no question Middle East instability has an impact on gas prices, but let's call it how it is. This president and his administration are hostile to fossil fuels. And the reality is, we are going to be a nation dependant upon fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Yes, we ought to be looking for technology that can actually operate on its own to provide us with alternative sources. But at this point, we've got to and should rely on all of our sources of energy here at home. And this...
MR. GREGORY: The president says it's an all of the above approach. He's expanded drilling leases and access to public land.
REP. CANTOR: No, he's not. The, the, the reality is, and he'll claim that the production of energy right now is at an all-time high. But what we'll see is the issuance of, of permits, the actual policy of allowing for the proceeding of deep ocean drilling is not matching his rhetoric. And so it's very clear he's hostile to fossil fuels. He's hostile to coal. He's hostile to oil. He's hostile, frankly, to gas. And we need a definitive statement by this president that we will have a national energy policy because as you indicate, it is critical to a growing economy that we do that.
MR. GREGORY: Final political point. Do you believe that Mitt Romney has this nomination locked up after Tuesday?
REP. CANTOR: Listen, it'll be a hard fought race until the end. I believe he's going to...
MR. GREGORY: It goes to the convention, in other words?
REP. CANTOR: He's going to be--he's--well, listen. That's for the pundits to answer because I don't look at the polls like they do.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
REP. CANTOR: But what I can tell you is he's going to do very well in my home state of Virginia. He's going to do very well on Super Tuesday, and he is the guy, I believe, that will be our nominee and we will, we will have a clear choice as a country as far as the vision forward and growing this economy with Mitt's plan vs. that of the president's record.
MR. GREGORY: You think it's time for Santorum and Gingrich to step out of the race?
REP. CANTOR: I, I think that our race and our system allows anyone to participate in this process, but I do believe Mitt Romney will win our nomination and will win the presidency in November.
MR. GREGORY: Here I might--thought I might catch you in a weak moment. Leader, thank you very much.
REP. CANTOR: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: Appreciate it.
Coming up, Democrats say Republicans are waging a war on women, especially after the controversial comments by Rush Limbaugh. Will it be a lasting issue in the 2012 campaign? The chair of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, joins us next. And later on, our political roundtable previews Super Tuesday where over 400 delegates are at stake and it could very well be a game changer. More on that coming up.
MR. GREGORY: And up next, the chair of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, with her views on the GOP race, Obama's re-election campaign and the social issues overshadowing the campaign. That's up next after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: Joining me now, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Welcome back to the program.
REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): Thanks, David, it's great to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: Nice to have you here in studio. So let me ask you about this issue of contraception and this fight over social issues. Just as I've asked your--the two other guests I've had this morning, can you appreciate where they're coming from, which is--this is not a war on women, which they say is a vast overstatement, or about access to contraception, but this is about religious liberty that started with the president's new regulation about faith institutions and access and who pays for contraception.
REP. SCHULTZ: Well, if it's not a war on women, then let's just look at what happened this week in contraception. First, you had the Blunt-Rubio bill that was on the floor in the United States Senate that wouldn't just deal with making sure that women couldn't have access to contraception, it would actually say that any boss could use their own moral conviction to decide what access to health care their employees could have, making sure that women would have to have their own access to health care, whether it's to mammograms or contraception or to amniocenteses or any other type of health care access, decided by their boss. And that was defeated in the Senate. So the Republicans actually want to go much further than just saying women shouldn't have access to, to contraception. They want to say that bosses should be able to decide what kind of access to health care women can have.
MR. GREGORY: But to raise Speaker Gingrich's point, who is saying that access to contraception will be cut off in any fashion?
REP. SCHULTZ: Well, because...
MR. GREGORY: Even the president's rule on the compromise allows--it's just that the insurers would have to pay for it directly, but there would still be all the access that you fought for.
REP. SCHULTZ: Because the president's policy has made sure that contraception, which is expensive...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
REP. SCHULTZ: ...is going to be available under the Affordable Care Act without a co-pay and without a deductible. And so if you say that that can't happen and if you say that a boss can replace their own moral conviction with this policy, then that is how Republicans are proposing to restrict women's access to contraception. Then the other news in contraception this week was Rush Limbaugh criticizing a young law student who stood up and said, look, at Georgetown Law School, not only am I required to pay for my own health insurance because Georgetown Law requires all students to pay for health insurance, but contraception's not covered. And what did he do? He called her a slut. A slut. And now I'm sorry, I know he apologized, but forgive me if I doubt his sincerity given that he lost at least six advertisers. And the bottom line is that the leading candidate on the Republican side for president couldn't even bring himself to call Rush Limbaugh's comments outrageous and call him out and ask him to apologize.
MR. GREGORY: You're talking about Mitt Romney.
REP. SCHULTZ: Yes. Mitt Romney. What, what woman in America--and Rush Limbaugh, in that apology, said that he was trying to be humorous. I don't know any woman in America, David, that thinks that being called a slut is funny.
MR. GREGORY: This is a major campaign issue for Democrats, is that fair to say? Over a million dollars has been raised on a quote unquote "war on women" campaign the national Democrats are running. This is what the Democratic Party wants to run on?
REP. SCHULTZ: There is a dramatic contrast between President Obama and his view that women should have access to affordable health care, including contraception; and Mitt Romney and the Republicans who believe that women should not.
MR. GREGORY: But again, you're presenting as the binary choice and there is another aspect to it.
REP. SCHULTZ: There is.
MR. GREGORY: Cardinal Dolan in the New York Post covered this morning. He says, "We live in an era that seems to discover new rights every day and then expects government and culture and society to pay for it. The church emphasizes responsibility more than rights." I mean, you heard Gingrich, you heard Leader Cantor saying that this is about infringement of liberty. Can't you at least appreciate that this is a deeply held view of your critics?
REP. SCHULTZ: Oh, absolutely. And so could President Obama, which is why he balanced religious liberty and making sure that no matter what employer a woman worked for, she had access to contraception when he made an accommodation in his policy and said that religious employers, religiously affiliated employers, would not have to pay for contraception, but the insurance companies would. And so that way he struck that balance, recognizing that there is an important need to protect religious liberty while making sure that we are not forcing women to choose not to work for an employer that is religiously affiliated and objects to providing that coverage.
MR. GREGORY: I asked Leader Cantor about gas prices. Let me ask you as well.
REP. SCHULTZ: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: Obviously, the president is in a mode here where he wants to defend himself and try to deflect because it's never good politics for an incumbent when gas prices go up. And both sides have failed to provide a long-term answer to this issue, Republicans and Democrats. Bill Clinton, the former president, said hey, that Keystone Pipeline, the president ought to get behind that. Do you think the president makes himself vulnerable by not doing everything possible to protect America against the kind of instability in the Middle East that can make gas prices spike up?
REP. SCHULTZ: Well, first of all, the Republicans are the ones that made it much more difficult for us to move forward on the Keystone Pipeline when they clearly limited the decision-making process to two months. The State Department indicated that they would need a year, they shortened and, and the payroll tax extension, that time frame to two months, and so forcing the--President Obama to reject it at this point, particularly because the Republican governor of Nebraska said that the, that the Keystone Pipeline proposal was problematic. But let's look at what would--what the Keystone Pipeline would actually produce. It would take 45 years if the Keystone Pipeline were in place, to produce as much oil as President Obama's policy to--on fuel efficiency standards for American automobiles would in increasing those over the next few years. So let's realistically look at...
MR. GREGORY: So President Clinton had it wrong when he encouraged President Obama to get behind this?
REP. SCHULTZ: What, what is important to note is that we need to make sure that we strike the right balance in looking at the timetable for approval on Keystone, acknowledging that the Republican governor of Nebraska expressed concern and said we needed to slow down, and also realistically not looking at Keystone as the be all and end all. It would take 45 years to produce out of oil shale from the Keystone Pipeline as much oil as we save in the increase in fuel efficiency standards from President Obama's policy that would be implemented by the middle of the next decade.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. The debate continues on the campaign trail.
REP. SCHULTZ: Thanks, David.
MR. GREGORY: Chairwoman, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
REP. SCHULTZ: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, what to look for on Super Tuesday. Can Romney emerge as the solid front-runner again? Plus, President Obama speaks out about the looming foreign policy crisis that is Iran. Our political roundtable is here: Republican strategist Mike Murphy, Time magazine's Mark Halperin, Atlanta's Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed, and NBC's Savannah Guthrie, coming up.
MR. GREGORY: And we're back with our political roundtable. Joining me, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for Time magazine, Mark Halperin; NBC's own Savannah Guthrie; Republican strategist, columnist for Time magazine, Mike Murphy; and the mayor of Atlanta, Democrat Kasim Reed.
Mr. Mayor, nice to have you back.
MAYOR KASIM REED (D-GA): Glad to be back.
MR. GREGORY: Let's go to our trend tracker of the hot political stories, because that's where all the action is in terms of what we've been discussing. Number one, Romney wins Washington as he prepares to go into Super Tuesday. The Limbaugh apology, which we've covered this morning. And the fact that Ohio is now a toss-up.
Mark Halperin, let me get right to you. What are you looking for on Tuesday here? This is the big preview.
MR. MARK HALPERIN: For Mitt Romney, he'll come out of Super Tuesday still far and away the most likely Republican nominee no matter what happens. If he, you know, win Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia, he's got to win Ohio to keep the momentum going. If he loses Ohio, things are going to drag on for longer. And it'd be nice for him, real nice for him, if he overwhelmed in delegate accumulation, which I think he will no matter what, and if he could win one other state, Idaho, maybe Tennessee, something else where there's not a...(unintelligible)...he can't win in the South.
MR. GREGORY: Let me throw some things on the table based on my own reporting this week on some of the keys for Romney, both on the math but also on the narrative. I'll put it up on the screen. The economy, I've noticed him focusing on the economy, selling himself as a fiscal conservative, not a cultural conservative. He's clearly concerned about erosion of support among independents, he wants to distance himself from the extremes. He still has been error-prone on the campaign trail. But he--this is really a test here, Mike Murphy, of whether he can build on the success of Michigan and Arizona. That's something he has not done yet...
MR. MIKE MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ...after a couple of big victories; that's the opportunity Tuesday.
MR. MURPHY: Well, Michigan gave him the big microphone, so he can do himself some good. That Washington state win I think was indicative because he was way behind there. He is definitely moving up, now a tied race in Ohio. And the question is how does he use this moment? Now this thing is always about two things, the delegate math, where he's doing very well, and the narrative of winning and losing. So what I'm looking for is, of course, Ohio, but also Tennessee because otherwise the narrative will be that Romney cannot win in the South and we have more Southern states coming. But if he can win Ohio--he's won Florida--those are the two biggest states in the, in the general election, swing states, and he wins Tennessee, which I think he can do, that'll be, I think, maybe the big surprise, and maybe pick up some suburban support even in Newt Gingrich's Georgia. He'll win Virginia for free, that's the Brezhnev primary, you know, vote for anybody you want, there's only two on the ballot, Romney and Paul. Then I think he'll be in a pretty commanding place for the nomination. And on behalf of the Republican establishment, it's about damn time because we want this thing to get over because we see those independent voters...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. MURPHY: ...eroding as we scare the hell out of them with the histrionics of our primary.
MR. GREGORY: Mr. Mayor, as a Democratic voice, a national Democratic voice and supporter of President Obama...
MAYOR REED: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...you got to like all this dysfunction, all of this--the hard-fought nature of this primary.
MAYOR REED: I like it a bit. I mean, I think that Mitt Romney's team has to be wanting to get this over. They've got to have a strong Tuesday. But what's happening is the core conservatives, meaning Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, are really damaging Mitt Romney and they're damaging on every front. He can't talk about Bain because they've attacked him on Bain for job destruction. He can't talk about the Olympics because they've turned that into a commentary on earmarks. He can't talk about being governor of Massachusetts because his signature bill was the healthcare bill. But the problem that he has is he has true conservatives who are making these attacks as opposed to Democrats.
MR. GREGORY: Savannah, the issue that we've talked a lot about this morning is this issue of contraception. Rush Limbaugh--there's so many--are we talking about religious liberty, are we talking about a war on women, are we talking about Limbaugh's offensive comments? What we're certainly talking about is that both sides, elements of both sides, want to have this fight over a social issue.
MS. SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: They want to have this fight. Every time they're talking about contraption...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. GUTHRIE: ...they're not talking about the economy, that's where voters are, and that's a problem really for both parties. Obviously both parties think they've got a winner here. The problem with Rush Limbaugh, beyond the obvious in terms of what he said, is that he reframed the debate on Democrats' terms. Republicans were trying to say, "Here we have, at last, an example of how the healthcare law reaches in and intrudes on religious liberty," and Rush Limbaugh takes that moment and decides to make it personal, vitriolic and use these words that anyone would find offensive. And you asked Speaker Gingrich about this, you asked some of the people on the panel, I think potentially Romney lost an opportunity there to speak out forcefully against Rush Limbaugh. This was not a gray area. You look--you need look no further than the fact that even Rush Limbaugh apologized for it. I think they probably thought, you know, why antagonize social conservatives who listen to Limbaugh? On the other hand, it would have shown some political courage, some backbone, and ultimately I think that would help him with conservatives.
MR. GREGORY: It, it--Sister Souljah is not just a rap reference, it's a political reference, Mike Murphy.
MR. MURPHY: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Was this a Sister Souljah moment that Mitt Romney missed?
MR. MURPHY: It could have been. And my view is it could have been and it should have been. The big myth about Rush Limbaugh is he can't deliver a pizza let alone a vote. A lot of noise. Now there's a double standard. The media covers him like he's the king of the Republican Party. There are folks on the left throwing the same kind of language around, even giving a million dollars to a Democratic--I don't hear about them. That said, this was an opportunity for Mitt to push back. Even Santorum, who said it was absurd, was a click or two tougher on him than Mitt was. And I thought it was a lost opportunity for his campaign. I mean, they can do the 30 yards in a cloud of dust campaign to get the nomination--they're likely, I agree with Mark, to be the nominee--but they got to watch the general election, too, or it's going to be a worthless nomination.
MS. GUTHRIE: By the way, the...
MR. MURPHY: And we could lose our opportunity to win in the Senate.
MS. GUTHRIE: ...the president also in danger, perhaps, of an over-reach by calling this law student, she's 30 years old...
MR. MURPHY: Yeah.
MS. GUTHRIE: ...in the guise of saying, "Are you OK?"
MR. MURPHY: Yeah.
MS. GUTHRIE: I mean, obviously the Democrats want to make the most of the opportunity, but to me that seemed a little nakedly political and gimmicky.
MR. MURPHY: And meanwhile, the Chinese graduate 2,000 engineers while we're arguing about this. The whole thing was cringe-worthy.
MR. HALPERIN: Tale of two candidates. I don't think that's an over-reach, it's a brash political move, clearly political. But it--look, the presidency--you look at Romney vs. Obama on this, the president talking about both the appreciation for religious liberty and the reproductive health issues. No other politician in the country's doing that, classic triangulation, and, and being bold and being out front on that, having his allies out there in an organized way. Romney timid, not willing to repudiate Limbaugh and not seizing the moment to talk about big issues.
MR. GREGORY: Well...
MR. HALPERIN: Even though he should be focused on the economy...
MR. GREGORY: Mayor, let me offer a...
MR. HALPERIN: ...you can't drive the news by yourself.
MR. GREGORY: ...let me offer a different point of view. I mean, he--when, when Mitt Romney said, "I'm not going to light my hair on fire," he's made it very clear for weeks he doesn't think that this is an issue that Republicans ought to be talking about. He wants to run, as I say in my, in my keys, as a fiscal conservative. Does that not pay dividends for him in a general election?
MAYOR REED: I don't think it does because he's not being consistent. The fact of the matter is he should have made a comment. I don't think it was an over-reach for the president to call because it draws the contrast of the president's position around women and Mitt Romney's conversation around women and the Republican, Republican Party's conversation around women. So it was not a mistake. The future of politics is performance and this shows that Mitt Romney is not adept at changing, of responding to the environment, and of thinking on his feet.
MR. MURPHY: You know, I'm a good friend of Mitt Romney's, I ran his governor campaign, I want him to win, but I get frustrated because I know somewhere, I mean I believe that Mitt heard about this and, you know, it was a double hockey sticks H-E-L--he was unhappy with it. That Mitt Romney, who a lot of us know personally, country saw a little more of that, he'd be doing better.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about this point, Mike, which is a lack of enthusiasm among Republicans in the course of these primaries. And our NBC News Marist poll reveals this, a tale of two states here. This is likely Republican voters in Ohio and Virginia: Satisfied or would you like to see somebody else run? In Ohio, 46 percent would like to see somebody else run. In Virginia, 50 percent, Savannah, would like to see somebody else run. You know, this is not a beloved front-runner in Mitt Romney.
MS. GUTHRIE: It's not a beloved field at all. And you have to sit back and wonder why it was that some of these marquee Republicans never got into this race. And I think depending on how things turn out in November, Republicans will be doing a lot of soul-searching on this issue. We began by talking about Super Tuesday. I would suspect Super Tuesday isn't going to be as super as years past because it doesn't hold the potential for some candidate to come in and have that decisive blow that whittles down the field. There's no incentive anymore for people to drop out of the race. Campaigns don't die the natural death they used to when their fundraising dried up, partly because of RNC's new rules that award delegates proportionally, but also because now these super PACs, a, a single donor can come in and keep a campaign going. And the longer that that goes on, the harder it is for Mitt Romney because he's not running towards independents and he's got a lot of ground to make up there.
MR. GREGORY: Mark Halperin, we talked this week. A key phrase, can he united the party? I mean, that's what successful Republican nominees do, and a Democratic nominee, as well. Is he capable of doing that?
MR. HALPERIN: Getting Eric Cantor's endorsement on the show is a good sign and he's going to have to get--unite people in Washington. I think Washington will be there. The super PACs will be there. The rich people will be there. The part of the party he has to unite is the people out in the country and independent leaning Republicans who aren't enthusiastic about him now and who, and who see him waging this battle day in and day out that is not enhancing his reputation. The party I think will be united if, if he performs competently. He's got to worry about independents, women, Hispanics, groups that right now he is not tending to. A skillful politician could simultaneously unite the party and deal with those groups. We're not seeing that from him right now.
MR. MURPHY: Well, he's going to unite the Republicans. I have no worries about that at all. I think that's generally a myth of analysis the Republicans in a presidential year don't show up. The question is if, I think he will be the nominee and I think the convention will give him a useful reset. I don't think this race is over at all. But it's not going to be Republicans if he loses. He'll get the Republican. That's why you call them the base, you get them. They're free. It's everybody else, that's the election.
MS. GUTHRIE: And it...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. MURPHY: Especially now with Latino.
MS. GUTHRIE: And if you look at where McCain was at 2008 at this juncture in the campaign vs. where Romney is vis-a-vis independents, even Romney allies will acknowledge they have a much bigger hole to climb out of because of the nature of the Republican primary.
MR. GREGORY: And there is something else we came across about image that was really instructive. Here is Mitt Romney offering analysis on himself. The Boston Globe reported it. The headline, "Romney working to define his image. When he announced his candidacy in March, Romney told reporters that the greatest lesson from his last campaign was that he needed to sell his own image before his opponent put him on the defensive. `I learned that, if you don't define yourself your opponent will define yourself for you,' Romney said."
Mike Murphy, that was 2002.
MR. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: He's been struggling with this for a long time.
MR. MURPHY: Yeah, he has. I mean, one--I feel a little sorry for him because he did catch an incredibly early radicalized Republican primary right now. There's a lot of anger. On the left it's Occupy Wall Street. If Obama had a primary, some nuisance candidate would be taking 25 percent from him everywhere, we'd be talking about that. He is lucky he doesn't. Mitt is the--half the Republican primary wants to burn Washington down. They don't want a fix-it guy like Mitt, and that's Mitt's problem. He's got a very, very rough terrain there. And dealing with that rough terrain is what's hurting him with independents.
Political consultants hate independent voters. We've had a 40 percent swing in two years back and forth. They're essentially the nymphomaniacs for politics. They're all over and so you can't predict where they go. But given time and the right kind of centrist attention, Romney is the guy who can get that vote in the end.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor Reed, President Obama. When you were here last you said he's got to talk about the auto bailout. That was a story of success. He heard you.
MAYOR REED: Exactly right.
MR. GREGORY: And he's doing he. We know...
MAYOR REED: Yeah. GM is the number one in the world now.
MR. GREGORY: We know the strength. We know the economy is improving, attitudes about the economy are improving. Where are you worried still as a supporter of the president as he gets...
MAYOR REED: Well...
MR. GREGORY: ...closer to a general election?
MAYOR REED: What I'm worried about is what we don't know. I think he's right to talk about the decision he made around the auto bailout. We did talk about that before. But I think the president has effectively put his--himself in the position to win Michigan and to win Ohio and do well there. That's why it's key. He's got to keep talking about it.
But on the fuel cost that we're dealing with, he's got to let folks know that he has empathy. You all mentioned Bill Clinton earlier.
MR. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
MAYOR REED: He's got to let the American public know that he's doing every single thing he can because folks will likely feel a pinch around the gas costs, gas prices. He's also got to have a conversation about his grand bargain.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MAYOR REED: In order to keep independents, he's got to continue to talk about his efforts to reduce the debt and deficit. He's got to get out in front of that right now.
MR. GREGORY: Mark Halperin, to sum up where we've been today, Eric Cantor has endorsed Mitt Romney. You have Newt Gingrich saying the party will certainly be united behind him and he made is very clear that this religious liberty issue is an animating force for Republican voters as far as he can see. Does Super Tuesday represent the end? Is it possible after Super Tuesday Santorum and Gingrich do more than fade away, that they actually get out?
MR. HALPERIN: I don't think so. I think both of them are looking for their shot to go basically one on one with him, and so I think whoever comes out stronger Super Tuesday will, will be inclined to go forward. And as Mike pointed out earlier, we have Southern contests coming up where Romney will struggle, even in a four-person race. Illinois, I think, is the next big moment. Whatever happens on Tuesday, if Romney can win Ohio and win Illinois, then I think he can effectively end the race. If somebody can come back and beat him in Illinois, though, then they--we go on. And, and Romney, this whole year there's one story, can Romney do this? This defined by a lot of things, but can he do this.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. Thank you all very much.
Before we go, we invite you to visit our new and improved Facebook timeline that we unveiled this morning featuring archival material from the past 64 years of MEET OF THE PRESS history. We showed it to Savannah. It's on our Facebook page--she liked it--facebook.com/meetthepress. Also, you can watch our Press Pass conversation on our blog. This week I sat down with top political strategist Democrat Mark Penn and Republican Whit Ayres for an inside look at Super Tuesday. That's at presspass.msnbc.com.
Stay with NBC News and MSNBC for continuing coverage of the countdown to Super Tuesday. And of course, on Tuesday night, complete results and analysis. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.