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Meet the Press transcript for December 4, 2011

Transcript of the December 4 broadcast featuring David Axelrod, Reince Priebus, Joe McQuaid, Katty Kay, Harold Ford, Jr., and Mark Halperin.

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, less than a month before the first votes are cast in 2012's race for the White House, a major shake-up in the GOP field.


MR. HERMAN CAIN:  I am suspending my presidential campaign.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  President Obama makes the case for another four years.  New jobless numbers give him a boost, falling to the lowest levels since 2009; but slow growth, rising debt and a financial crisis in Europe are still major concerns.


PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  Now is not the time to slam the brakes on the recovery. Right now it's time to step on the gas.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  This morning, a debate on the president's case for re-election. First, Mr. Obama's senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod; then the GOP's top party official, chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. Axelrod and Priebus debate the Obama presidency and the 2012 campaign.

Then it's our political roundtable breaking down the GOP primary battles. Herman Cain is out, suspending his presidential campaign after a rough few weeks, including allegations Monday of a longtime extramarital affair.


MR. CAIN:  As false accusations about me continue, they have sidetracked and distracted my ability to present solutions to the American people.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  So what does it mean for the rest of the field?  Also, Mitt Romney pressed again about his changing positions and his record as Massachusetts governor.


FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA):  This is an unusual interview.  All right, let's do it again.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Meantime, Newt Gingrich predicts he will win the nomination.


FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) I'm clearly the more conservative candidate by any rational standard.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Will the fight for the right come down to Romney vs. Gingrich? Joining us, the publisher of the Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper and author of the paper's endorsement of Newt Gingrich just last week, Joe McQuaid; anchor of "BBC World News America," Katty Kay; former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr.; and Time magazine's Mark Halperin.

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

MR. GREGORY:  Good morning.

What a week in politics.  With Herman Cain's exit from the race yesterday, the Republican field is down to seven, and here's how things in Iowa and New Hampshire look now.  Exclusive results from our NBC Marist poll in New Hampshire has Mitt Romney on top over Newt Gingrich by 16 points.  Ron Paul in third place with 16 percent.  And in Iowa, Newt Gingrich ahead of Mitt Romney by 8 points and Ron Paul, again, in third, with 17 percent.  Herman Cain there at 9 percent.  A little later on, we'll show you how it looks when his support is taken out and redistributed to other candidates.  Also, we have the Des Moines Register poll.  They released it last night.  Again, Newt Gingrich on top in Iowa, but again, underlining Ron Paul in second place, slightly ahead of Mitt Romney.  So a lot to get to.  We go inside the polls and look at some of the key moments from the week later in our political roundtable.

But first, for a preview of the battle ahead this fall when the president faces the Republican nominee, we have the senior adviser to the president's re-election campaign, David Axelrod; and the chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus.

Mr. Axelrod, I will begin with you.  Welcome back.

MR. DAVID AXELROD:  Thank you, good to be here.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's talk jobs.  And this is what the unemployment chart looks like for the Obama presidency with that November number, 8.6 percent, dipping below 9 percent for the first time since all the way back in 2009.  But not all good news.  If you look inside the report, The New York Times editorialized it this way.  We'll put it up on the screen.  "Properly understood," The Times writes, "the new figures reveal more about the depth of distress in the job market than about real improvement in job prospects.  Most of the decline in November's unemployment rate was not because jobless people found new work.  Rather, it is because 315,000 people dropped out of the work force, a reflection of extraordinarily weak demand by employers for new workers." Do the new numbers change the way the president looks at the economy?

MR. AXELROD:  David, I've never--we've never hung our hat on one number; and, obviously, we continue to have big challenges.  But let's recognize that we've created 2.9 million private sector jobs in the last 21 months.  The first month we took office, we--the country was losing 750,000 jobs in one, in one month.  So what we need to do is accelerate that, which is why the president has pushed the American Jobs Act.  And the key--one of the key proponents is the continuation of the payroll tax cut, and that is the big battle and that is the big question we have to solve right now.  Mr. Priebus, I hope, will explain why the Republican Party in Congress won't extend that.  They would sooner let taxes go up on 160 million working Americans than ask a little more of 300,000 millionaires.  And that, that doesn't make sense.  That's not good for our economy.

MR. GREGORY:  But the Democrats are willing to, to fund that a different way, as Senator Schumer said on this program last week.  In the end, do you think it will pass?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, that's really up to them.  There, there's certainly a willingness on the part and a commitment on the part of the president, on the part of the Democratic Party in Congress.  We have yet to hear from the Republicans.  In the summer they said they didn't want to extend it.  And it is unfathomable to me as to why they want to raise taxes on 160 million working Americans.  That's--it's not good at any time, but it's certainly not good now.

MR. GREGORY:  You've said before that the economy's a great predictor of elections.  And you can talk about how things bad were, how much worse they could have become.  Inevitably, there's going to be a lot of voters who look at the jobless situation and say this president simply hasn't gotten it done.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, look, I think people are more--there's no doubt that the economy needs to pick up.  It's--we've made some progress, we need to make a lot more, but there's an even larger question, which is how do we restore the economic security that middle class Americans have, have lost?  Not just over the last three years, but over a long period of time.  That's a lot about what this election is going to be about.  And what we've heard from the Republican candidates is not a plan for that.  They want to continue to give tax cuts to the very wealthy, except double down on those.  They think if we roll back the rules on Wall Street and let Wall Street write its own rules, that that will somehow accelerate the economy and profit everyday Americans.  That is not a prescription for rebuilding middle class security.  The president has it. It's--it goes to education, it goes to creating the advanced manufacturing jobs of the future, it goes to making smart investments that will give people better opportunities.  And so we need a, a plan and a vision that has at its core the, the, the welfare and the, the, the chances of the middle class in this country.

MR. GREGORY:  As you know, having been in Washington, Washington is failing the American people when it comes to dealing with the debt crisis in this country.  The supercommittee has failed, the debt debacle over the summer. The president started a debt commission.  He convened it.  It was Simpson-Bowles.  That's the vernacular in Washington.  They came out with some pretty tough recommendations--tax reform, tax increases, a lot of spending cuts--but nothing ever came of it.  Warren Buffett said this week that it was a travesty that that was simply ignored.  Alan Simpson said, telling Time magazine, he was the co-chair, that Bill Clinton would've actually embraced it.  This president did not.  Governor Christie of New Jersey said this week the following about President Obama.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ):  I think it's a sad day in our country's history to have a bystander in the Oval Office, and that's what we have.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  The president says we cannot wait.  We cannot wait.  He did, when it came to Simpson-Bowles.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, let me just say one thing about what Governor Christie said about being a bystander.  I watched this president make some very difficult decisions, difficult political decisions, at the beginning of this administration to right the financial sector, to, to get this economy out of the free-fall that it was in, to save the American auto industry.  The candidate that he's endorsed, Governor Romney, said he would've let Detroit go bankrupt.  We would've lost a million more jobs.  So I don't think he's in a position to talk about who is a, a bystander.

MR. GREGORY:  What about the debt, though?  I mean, this is a huge issue.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, the--first of all, let's, let's, let's recognize the president appointed Simpson and Bowles and that commission.  A lot of the ideas that they proposed animated his discussions with Speaker Boehner in the summer.  He was prepared to lock arms with the speaker and move forward on a $4 trillion plan to reduce the deficit.  The speaker returned to his caucus, and he had his legs cut out from under him, and that was the end of it.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, but he--Erskine Bowles said there was a different calculus in the White House, and it came down to politics.  Watch.

(Videotape, last Sunday)

MR. ERSKINE BOWLES:  We were really surprised and, you know, my belief is that most of members of the economic team strongly supported it.  They got it. And like every White House, there's a small cabal of people that surround the president, that he trusts and he works with; and I believe it was the Chicago guys, the political team, that convinced him that it would be smarter for him to wait and let Paul Ryan go first, and that he would look like the sensible guy in the game.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Now, let me just explain that a little bit before you respond. So Paul Ryan, the budget chairman, puts out his proposal, his budget, including Medicare reform.  And the feeling in the White House was let him go first, he'll look unreasonable.  But never did the president say, ?Forget the other side, I put this commission together, I'm going to lead, I'm going to say to the American people, ?We've got to take these tough steps.  This commission has come back.  Let's do this.?" And, by the way, you're one of the Chicago guys, right?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I, I presume so.  But I, I have to say that we did what we felt was in the best interest of moving this issue forward; and, as I said, I think we came awfully close in the summer to getting there, informed by the principles of, of, of this commission.  I think, had we, had we simply thrown it out there, it would have been savaged and, and torn apart by, by, by all, all sorts of interest groups and parties.

MR. GREGORY:  But so was health care, but you persisted with that.

MR. AXELROD:  No, no.  We, we had--we--our goal was to succeed with this, and we took the path that we thought was best.  And remember, the president has already moved on, on, on $1 trillion and more of, of deficit reduction.  He's proposed $3 trillion more.  I think we're going to get there, David, by the end of next year because I think the trigger is in place, the president's not going to unlock that trigger until Congress acts.  We are going to pursue many of the principles that were contained within that plan.  The question, though, isn't whether you, you take symbolic acts.  The question is whether you make progress.

MR. GREGORY:  Did the president miss an opportunity to lead on slashing debt?

MR. AXELROD:  No, I think leading is, is moving things forward.  I don't think that, that had we thrown the bill, the proposal out to be savaged and defeated that would have been moving the proposal forward.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about politics.  Herman Cain, a big political story on the Republican side of the ledger.  He is out now, out now.  What impact has he had on this race?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I don't know.  I'll let Mr. Priebus discuss that.  I don't propose--I don' pretend to be an expert on Republican politics.  I mean, I don't think he...

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think his, his position in the race has ultimately helped the president's cause?  I mean this--there was a kind of reality television aspect to, certainly, his, his speech yesterday...

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I don't...

MR. GREGORY:  ...and aspects of his campaign.

MR. AXELROD:  You know, my, my general view is, I don't think the Republican debates have helped the Republican, the Republican cause because it has elevated ideas I don't think the American people embrace.  I don't think the American people think that the way forward is to, is to continue to, to give tax breaks to the, the people at the very top, shift the burden to the middle class and people who're trying to become middle class, cut regulation on Wall Street and let them write their own rules as they were doing before the crisis.  And that's what we keep hearing from all these candidates.

MR. GREGORY:  You--there are a number of candidates.  It's now down to seven, but the White House seems to only be concerned about Mitt Romney.  And the, the charge against him has been pretty blunt.  David Plouffe, on this program October 30th, said this about Mitt Romney.

(Videotape, October 30, 2011)

MR. DAVID PLOUFFE:  He has no core.  And, you know, every day, almost, it seems to be we find another issue.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Chair of the Democratic National Committee echoing that this past week on MSNBC said the following.

(Videotape, Thursday)

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL):  They need to understand that this is a person who has no moral core, no conviction, willing to, to change his position based on the political winds and the way they blow.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  No moral core, no core.  I mean, this is a man whose been married over 40 years, who has been, in effect, a priest in his faith, as a bishop in the Mormon church.  Is this not underlying what is the politics of personal descript--destruction?

MR. AXELROD:  Look, I--and, and, and I admire, I admire his, his family and I admire his...

MR. GREGORY:  What is this about no core?

MR. AXELROD:  This is about, this is about public character.  This is about public character.  And, by the way, it's not just Democrats, but most of the Republicans who are making the same case, David.  Jon Huntsman's running ads, or his supporters are in New Hampshire on that right now.  We got another example of it again last night on, on the Fox segment that--with Mike Huckabee.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, you think it's an overstatement they just say no moral core, that Mitt Romney has no moral core?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, let me just, let me, let me, let me make, let me make this point about what happened last night.  Last night Governor Romney said that the, the EPA was the president's tool to crush the private enterprise system.  When he was governor of Massachusetts he boasted that he had the toughest rules against CO2 emissions from plants, that he had the toughest rules when it comes to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.  And now it's like that never happened.  Now he's, now he's on the other side of it. This is the reason I suppose why he and his aides absconded with the hard drives from their computers when they left the governor's office because they think they can just erase the past, that what you said before doesn't matter now.  And so, yes, when it comes to his public character, he, he doesn't have a core.  It has nothing to do with his personal life.  I honor his personal life.  I respect his personal life.  But this is about how you behave in the public arena.

MR. GREGORY:  But, you know, the Republicans will make the point that in your political past, in the Obama campaign of 2008, this is standard operating procedure.  The way you attacked now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that she was on different sides of, of issues, that she would, you know, have, have different views on the same issue.  And here the chair of the Democratic National Committee saying he has no moral core, does this not portend...

MR. AXELROD:  David...

MR. GREGORY:  ...a very negative personal campaign from the president against Mitt Romney?

MR. AXELROD:  David, my--as I said, let me say again.  I honor his personal life.  I respect him as a father, I respect his religious convictions, but this isn't about that.  This is about how you behave in public.  And he seems to think that every day is a new day that he can simply change all of his positions depending on what--who his audience is or what the political circumstances; and that is not what you want in a president of the United States.  So is that an issue?  Yes, that's an issue.

MR. GREGORY:  Newt Gingrich, does he have a core?  Is he a formidable candidate that the president faces?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I mean, I think that's, that's what voters are going to have to decide.  He's, obviously, a man with expansive thoughts and ideas that he expresses widely, and, and we'll see how that plays.  I don't know the answer to that yet.

MR. GREGORY:  Is he somebody that this White House will start to target in the same way they've targeted Mitt Romney?

MR. AXELROD:  Look, let's be clear.  Every single day Republicans are out there, Republican candidates are out there attacking the president for everything, every ill real and imagined.  That is the nature of politics.  We have legitimate differences with the Republican Party, mostly about how we rebuild an economy that works for the middle class in this country.  We're going to have a big debate about that.  And, yes, we're going to challenge them when, when we think they are wrong.  We're going to challenge them when we think that they are changing positions or cutting their positions in order to, to fit the particular political moment because we can't afford that kind of leadership right now.  That's what campaigns are.  They're, they're, they're tough.  They're comparative because people have to make a choice, and they have to decide who's going to provide the leadership that they want in the future that, that will relate to their lives and their prospects.

MR. GREGORY:  We're going to leave it there.  David Axelrod, thank you very much, as always.

MR. AXELROD:  Good to be with you.  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me turn now to the chair of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MR. REINCE PRIEBUS:  Hey, good morning, David.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to pick up on this point, on this comparative nature of this campaign.


MR. GREGORY:  Campaigns are tough, they've already gotten tough.  How do you respond to Mr. Axelrod on the moral core question for Mitt Romney?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, for the first time I, I've seen David tongue-tied.  I think he's living in an alternative universe here.  You know, what this is--what this race is going to come down to, David, are a couple of things. One, the president made some promises.  He made some pretty big promises, and you talked about them.  He made some promises in regard to the debt, which he didn't fulfill.  He made some big promises in regard to the deficit.  He said he'd cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term.  And what did he do?  He passed, or he put forward the biggest structural deficit in the history of America.  Now, here's to your point.  What I think is going to be the bigger problem for this president, people in this country don't think that this president's real anymore.  He's not genuine anymore.  He came to this country--across this country as a candidate, and he promised to be the great uniter, David.  He was going to be different.  He was a going to bring everyone together.  He was going to listen to the debt commission.  You remember that?  But guess what, now he's going out around America, and you just heard David talk about it, as the great divider.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, but he didn't...

MR. PRIEBUS:  He wants to turn this country into the divided States...

MR. GREGORY:  But, chairman...

MR. PRIEBUS:  ...of America.  That is the Obama strategy, and you just heard it.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, first of all, it is difficult when you have the, the Senate leader of the Republicans saying that his goal is to make him a one-term president.  You got to admit it's hard to become a uniter in those circumstances.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, listen, we're living under the Barack--the economy we're living under right now--I mean, this absurdity that somehow we're, we're hurting as an economy because of Republicans is--it doesn't appeal to anyone's logic because of this:  Nancy Pelosi controlled the Congress for two out of the three years that President Obama's been president.  Harry Reid controlled the Senate for two of those three years.  Guess what?  We are living under the Barack Obama Democratic policies today.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, and the, and the democratic economy.  But there is some good news, 8.6 percent unemployment now.  Here's some of the other good news in the economy, as, as you look at it, particularly can be argued from the Democratic point of view:  140,000 private sector jobs created in November, sales of existing homes rose 10.4 percent in October, Federal Reserve reported growth in 11 of its 12 bank regions, the Dow closed up 490 points on Wednesday.  Do you not worry, as some conservative commentators have said, that if this continues, it could be difficult for a Republican nominee revolving their campaign around a troubled economy?

MR. PRIEBUS:  President Obama's poll numbers are worse than Jimmy Carter's poll numbers.  For the first time in his presidency, he's waking up this morning wishing that his poll numbers were as good as Jimmy Carter's.  And you know why?

MR. GREGORY:  That's actually, that's actually out of context...

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well...

MR. GREGORY:  ...because you had a spike that Carter had around the Iran--the Iran hostage issue, mostly they were lower than where President Obama is.

MR. PRIEBUS:  People's opinions of this president couldn't be any lower. This president...

MR. GREGORY:  But I'm asking you about...

MR. PRIEBUS: not fooling the American people.

MR. GREGORY:  I'm asking about economic data.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, and I'm going to respond to data.  I mean, we all know, and you've put the statistics up before, that the reason the actual percentage of people filing with the Department of Labor went down was because 300,000 people threw up their hands and said, "Guess what?  This economy's so bad that I'm not going to even file a piece of paper with the Department of Labor." Now, we all know that that's true.  I mean, the reality is everything this president has touched, everything he's touched, has not turned out to go very well.  Everything he touched has gotten worse.  Now, the debt commission, he didn't follow it; supercommittee, he's out campaigning, he was nowhere to be found.  Health care costs, he said that Obamacare would make everything better in regard to health care, it would lower the cost of health care.  Guess what? Costs are higher, debt is higher, the deficits are higher.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me just...

MR. PRIEBUS:  This president has been a disaster to this country, David.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me just--let me just button up one thing.  I mean, we talk about how tough these campaigns can be.  You just said a moment ago this president is not real, and that's how Americans are perceiving him, as not real.  You've heard Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, say that Mitt Romney has no moral core.  David Plouffe saying he's got no core.  David Axelrod saying the same about Mitt Romney.  Fair to say, on both sides of the ledger, we're headed for a very personal and pretty nasty campaign?

MR. PRIEBUS:  You know what I think, I think people in this country are starving for?  Not necessarily all Republican answers and not Democratic answers.  People in this country are starving for real authentic people to lead this country.  And I think that the pageantry, the speeches, all the prepared remarks, the campaign stops that are masqueraded as official White House visits, people are tired.  People are tired of this president's promises and his failure to deliver.  And guess what?  If this president was an employee of any business out there in America, he would have been fired a long time ago.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, let's, let's talk about the field.  Herman Cain has suspended his campaign.  How do you react to that?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, I mean, he has to make that decision for himself, and he did.  And you know what, I mean, eventually we're going to be narrowing down the field, I mean, and eventually we're going to have a nominee.  So, I mean, these things are pretty common in, in primaries.  The candidates come and go, and eventually we have a nominee.

MR. GREGORY:  Were you surprised that Alan West, a, a conservative tea party congressman of Florida, said that he's become a distraction?  Was that your view?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, I don't think so.  I mean, I think that he provided a, a big voice in the debate.  But certainly his numbers were falling over the last few weeks, and he was having trouble raising money.  And I think it's only natural that if your numbers are falling and you can't raise the money to stay in the race, that you'd get out of the race.

MR. GREGORY:  This is what he said at his campaign-style appearance, new headquarters, comes up on the campaign bus only to say he's suspending the race.  This is what he said.

(Videotape, yesterday)

MR. CAIN:  Here's the good news.  The pundits would like for me to shut up, drop out, and go away.  Well, as my grandmother, who lived to be 104 years old, used to say when somebody was dead wrong, "Bless their little hearts." I am not going to be silenced, and I'm not going away!

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Do you agree that the press basically wanted him out of the race?  Do you agree, as he charged, that Democrats were behind some of the allegations against him?

MR. PRIEBUS:  I mean, I, I, I don't know.  I mean, I just don't know about that, David.  What I do know is that Herman Cain...

MR. GREGORY:  Was that hyperbole, by chance?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, you know what?  I'm going to let Herman Cain speak for Herman Cain, David.  I mean, the reality is, is that he provided a voice in this race, he's out of this race for a lot of reasons that we all know about.

MR. GREGORY:  He's not going away.  Do you think he still has a big impact? Does his voice still matter in this campaign?

MR. PRIEBUS:  He might have a big impact, but if you don't--you know, you're going to have--you have to have the money and the campaign and the ability to get your voice out.  And so the voice is as big as you're able to get out into the public.  I mean, but I do think the, the bigger issue here is that he provided a voice, as well as the rest of our field, as to what we're going to do to get this country back on track.

MR. GREGORY:  Why is the field and why are Republican voters so fickle?  That seems to be the takeaway in this campaign so far?  You look how many--look how many candidates have been up and then down and then up and then down.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, I don't think that it's anything unique, I mean, in American politics.  I mean, this is a big field.  I mean, obviously, when you have a desire within a party to save this country economically from a president that just isn't connecting the dots, you know, this idea that somehow competitive primaries is somehow, you know, bad for a party, look at all these Republican governors across the Midwest.  Every one of them, every one of them came through a very difficult primary.  And guess what?  They went into blue states, and they won.  This president, I mean, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama nearly gouged each other's eyes out through the end of June before a national convention, and guess what?  Barack Obama won pretty easily. He brought a supermajority with him in Congress and 60 votes in the Senate, and now we're living with the consequences of that Democratic leadership.  And the American people, by NBC's own polling, have said that they are fed up with this president who says one thing and does another.

MR. GREGORY:  Newt Gingrich, who is now a front-runner, along with Mitt Romney, has said on this program that, in the past, discipline has been a problem for him, in his personal life and in his public life.  To that point, a lot of critics are looking at his comments this week and saying, "Are we seeing the return of that Newt Gingrich?" This is what he said about children.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. REP. GINGRICH:  Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.  So they literally have--they have no habit of showing up on Monday.  They have no habit of staying all day.  They have no habit of, "I do this and you give me cash."

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Is that the view of the Republican Party?  He also called child labor laws "truly stupid."

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, you know, I'm going to let--you know, I can't be the referee of all, you know, 21 candidates in the Republican field.  I mean, the reality is that these candidates have to speak for themselves.  But that's another...

MR. GREGORY:  But you're out there raising money, you're--you are the top party official.  The, the rank and file are going to turn to you and let their voices be heard.  Do you think that's the Republican Party putting its best foot forward to challenge President Obama?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, I'm not going to dissect, you know, hundreds of hours of footage of every one of these candidates and everything that they say, but what I can tell you is that what Newt Gingrich was referring to in that--in some of those remarks was the fact that, under this president we have more poor people in this country, we have more people on food stamps than ever before.  I mean, for a president that portrays himself as being the guy that's going to look out for all economic sectors in this country, including those that are less fortunate, he's provided this country, under his policies, some numbers that are pretty staggering regarding to how many more people that are poor and how many more people are on food stamps.  He's failed them, too.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think that presidential candidates should decline an invitation from Donald Trump to a presidential debate in Iowa?

MR. PRIEBUS:  You know, we, we've had a lot of debates, and as you know, some of them have been sanctioned by the Republican National Committee and some of them haven't.  I mean, we've had debates with MSNBC as well.  But, you know, listen, I think that these are programs that each of these candidates have to decide for themselves whether they're going to compete in.  Their strategy involved, whether competing and not competing, those are things that those candidates need to decide.

MR. GREGORY:  I'm not quite sure when you say you had it with MSNBC.  You had it with NBC News where it aired on MSNBC.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  Are you equating that to, to a debate with Donald Trump?

MR. PRIEBUS:  Well, I mean, having Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, you know, discussing the debate for two hours isn't exactly ideal.  But we--but these candidates decide for themselves what arenas they want to participate in.

MR. GREGORY:  But do you think it detracts from the seriousness of the debate to have Donald Trump moderating a debate with the presidential candidates?

MR. PRIEBUS:  It's up to the candidates.  I mean, I don't make those decisions.  What--the decisions I make are making sure that we have a functional, operational Republican National Committee.

MR. GREGORY:  You're the chairman of the party.  You must have an opinion.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Right.  But I don't--but I don't--but--as--my personal opinion doesn't matter.  I mean, what matters is what we need to do as a Republican National Committee to make sure that we're functional and operational and that we do everything we can to make sure that we save this country.  And one of the things that we think that we need to do to save this country is defeat Barack Obama.

MR. GREGORY:  Newt Gingrich says he's the inevitable nominee.  Do you agree with that?

MR. PRIEBUS:  I think it's going to be up to the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Florida.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  How about a harder one.  Do the Packers go undefeated?

MR. PRIEBUS:  I think they do.  They beat the Giants today.  They're, they're going undefeated, and I think they're going to the Super Bowl.  I can't wait.

MR. GREGORY:  I mean, it's unbelievable.  You're not, you're not the football commissioner, but you're willing to give me your opinion on that.

MR. PRIEBUS:  You guys are going to have the cheeseheads coming out of your ears pretty soon.

MR. GREGORY:  That'll be fun.  Chairman Priebus, thank you very much.

MR. PRIEBUS:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Appreciate it.

Coming up, the major moments of the week:  Cain's fiery exit; Newt's rapid rise; and Romney's perception problems, they continue; plus, the political economy, what the jobless numbers mean for the president's re-election prospects.  Our political roundtable weighs in:  publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, Joe McQuaid; the BBC's Katty Kay; former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr.; and Time magazine's Mark Halperin.


MR. GREGORY:  Coming up, how will Herman Cain's exit affect the 2012 race? Our political roundtable is here, they're ready to weigh in:  Katty Kay, Mark Halperin, Joe McQuaid, and Harold Ford Jr.  It's up next after this brief commercial break.


MR. GREGORY:  We are back with our political roundtable.  Joining me, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, Joe McQuaid; former congressman from Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr.; editor-at-large, senior political analyst for Time magazine Mark Halperin; and Washington correspondent and anchor for "BBC World News America" Katty Kay.  Welcome all of you.

I have to go right to the scene this weekend on Saturday.  Down in Atlanta, Herman Cain's brand new campaign headquarters, there it is.  Quite a, quite a display.  Then you have him and, and Mrs. Cain arriving on a campaign bus. They get off the bus, the music that you can hear, "I Am America." He's there with his wife; and yet, Katty Kay, here he is.  This is why he's getting out of the race.

MS. KATTY KAY:  This is exactly why he...

MR. GREGORY:  Let's just...

(Videotape, yesterday)

MR. CAIN:  Because of these false and unproved accusations, it has paid and had a tremendous painful price on my family.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Katty.

MS. KAY:  Well, he was defiant when he got out of the race, and he didn't say it was specifically that there was anything in these allegations, and that that was why he was leaving.  But this has dogged him for the last couple of weeks, and he wanted to put it to rest.  It was interesting to me, David, that his wife was up there on the stage with him.  It's always curious when political wives are sort of paraded up on the stage at moments like this, why he chose to put her there and why she chose to be there.  But it was also because his--you know, to be honest about this, was his campaign ever going to go anywhere?  I mean, he got an awful lot of attention from the national press, he was part of this sort of absurd reality show of this campaign at a time when America faces huge issues and huge challenges.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm

MS. KAY:  We had these sort of whimsical rather fluffy distractions, which were never actually going to get Herman Cain into the White House.  He was never really going to be a serious candidate.  Even those who supported him didn't actually think he was ever going to be president of the United States. And, and he had to leave the race really as--I mean, he--it was the allegations of an affair that pushed him out, but he was never actually going to be the candidate or the president of the United States.

MR. GREGORY:  Mark Halperin, we're talking about major moments of the week and why they mattered.  Why does this matter?

MR. MARK HALPERIN:  It matters because Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee unless someone consolidates the conservative wing, the anti-Romney wing of the party against him, and Herman Cain maybe might've been the nominee, I think; but he certainly has some supporters around the country. He's got grass roots energy in Iowa, in other places, in South Carolina, in Florida.  And now Newt Gingrich has a chance, likely to get Cain's endorsement to scoop that up and to, and to be the one person who can consolidate all that anti-Romney sentiment in a way that could stop Romney from being the nominee.

MR. GREGORY:  Joe McQuaid, what do you say about this?

MR. JOE McQUAID:  I think it, it matters because it clarifies the Republican field that much more.  While I agree I don't think he was ever going to make it, I think that had more to do with his complete and total lack of campaign staff and experience.  When he came up here last week, we asked him, "Didn't you think you might have wanted to walk before you ran for president?" And his answer wasn't satisfying.  And he didn't have that much support in our state of New Hampshire, but I think it's going to break and probably rate towards Gingrich's favor, somewhat, because they're looking for someone with passion. The anti-Romney's got to be a passionate guy.  Cain was a passionate guy.

MR. GREGORY:  Harold Ford, let's look at what's happening in Iowa.  Here's our new polling, and we'll put it up on the screen.  This is with Herman Cain still in the race.  We then did it a second time by asking Cain supporters who their second choice would be, and then you could see how it gets redistributed.  Gingrich up 2, Romney up 1, Paul up 2, Perry up 1, Bachmann up 2.  So it's kind of all over the place, even though an endorsement, you would think, would go to Gingrich at this point.

FMR. REP. HAROLD FORD JR. (D-TN):  All indications suggest that.  You know, Gingrich has, to Mark's point, it's interesting how with the help of the endorsement last week, how he has emerged, not only as, as the, the, perhaps, the alternative to Romney, but as a very serious voice.  If you think about those who've emerged in the past, Perry, Bachmann, Donald Trump and others, they're serious people in some ways, but they were not serious candidates. Gingrich, whether you like him or not, whether you disagree with him or not, and I disagree with him on most things or a lot of things, he's a serious thinker, he's a presenter in a very serious way, and he's been able to connect with conservative voters in ways that the others have not.  If you're in a Mitt Romney campaign this morning, you have to be far more concerned than you've ever been about a candidate who might be able to at least substantively to stay around.  The argument is that he may implode.  I served with him in Congress, he certainly has a propensity to talk about himself in grandiose ways.  It would be interesting to see how he conducts himself over the next 30 days...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  ...because this race happens, the first race is in 30 days now.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, speaking of Newt Gingrich, that lack of discipline that he's talked about, the major moment this week is this theme of the good Newt vs. the bad Newt.  The bad Newt is on display, some suggest, when there is arrogance, when there's sort of, you know, a lack of discipline in putting out ideas about kids and child labor laws.  This is what he told ABC about his prospects.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. REP. GINGRICH:  I want to be the nominee.  I mean, it's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Good Newt or bad Newt?

MR. HALPERIN:  That would be bad Newt.  He's, he is, he is unusual.  He's a unique in American politics in the last 40 years.  There's no one in either party who has been as around as long, both a very prominent figure, but also a grassroots organizer.  And he--if this were going to be a six month campaign, if Newt had risen six months ago, I think the Romney people could be confident that, over time, those grandiose statements would catch up to him.  I think a lot of people in the party now, they want a figure like Churchill.  They want a big person who talks in bold ways to take on Barack Obama.  I think the grandiose stuff gets laughed at in this city, but may actually help him in the next 30 days.

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  (Unintelligible)...himself to people.  I mean, one of the advantages that he has that I think sometimes there are people in the country that don't really understand the magnitude and the monumental nature and stature of Churchill and Kennan and some of the others he compares himself to, so he gets away with it.  The question though is whether he implodes on other fronts.  I think the points he made about children and the points he's made in the past about the, the, the African-Americans and their role in our country and whether or not Obama fits some anti-colonial Kenyan model, those are the kinds of points I think, at the end of the day, serious people, and particularly independents, you know, are going to begin to ask, is he the kind of person we want negotiating with--our exit from Iraq?  Is he the kind of leader we want representing us in rooms with Chinese business leaders?  Is he the kind of leader we want in a room dealing with Russia?  I think those are questions that ultimately Obama will raise.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and Katty, what about the outsider thing?  I mean, this guy, as speaker, was second in line to the president.  You don't get much more inside than that.  You don't have to, you know, look at the lobbying piece or the, you know, the, the strategic advising to Freddie Mac.

MS. KAY:  Right.  You can see Mitt Romney's campaign already playing on that, that he is the guy, that Mitt Romney is the guy who's been outside of politics, that he's the one that's been the businessman with practical experience; and look at Newt Gingrich, he's the person that's been inside Washington for so long at a time when the country is very suspicious of Washington.  The question at the moment, I think, for the Romney campaign is how hard to they go after Newt Gingrich?  Are they going to go up in ads, for example?  Are they going to put money behind this?  Are they going to attack him directly?  And that's a decision that the campaign hasn't made yet.  But they're going to have to find a way, I think, to tackle Newt Gingrich. Republicans in the establishment of the Republican Party that you speak to are terrified of a Newt Gingrich campaign.  They believe that he could not only lose the Republicans the White House at a time when this is theirs to take, but that he could also lose some seats in the House and the Senate as well.


MS. KAY:  This is, this is a real concern amongst the establishment.

MR. McQUAID:  Well, Romney, the only reason he's the outsider is because he keeps running and losing, not that he hasn't tried to get in.

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  Tell us how you really feel about him?

MR. McQUAID:  And as far as Gingrich goes and bold ideas, I think Mark is right on that.  And I think he gets a bum rap on the child labor thing.  That kind of idea is really going to be embraced by the conservative wing, which is what he said in Boston was, there are kids in inner city schools who've never had a job, and they only have one parent and they have no idea what the work ethic is like.  Toss out some of the high-priced union janitors, which gets the conservative base riled up...

MR. GREGORY:  But are you really saying that the working poor in this country don't have good role models of how to work hard?  I mean, how do you...

MR. McQUAID:  Not the working poor.  But these are people who are not working and the kids are not working, and this gives a chance for the kids to take a broom, work in the cafeteria.  It would require a lot of...

MR. GREGORY:  But how do you get to that practical solution and not see it as a kind of...

MS. KAY:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...grotesque distortion of what's really happening out there?

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  This may--this may excite the conservative base, but at the end of the day this race will be decided by independent voters who went 2-to-1 in 2008 for President Obama.

MR. HALPERIN:  The race for a general election or for the nomination?

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  I'm sorry, the general election.  If you're, if you're sitting in Obama's shoes today and his campaign team's shoes, this will be decided by independents.  That kind of language will excite independents--will excite conservatives.  But the question is, whether or not that translates into a general election victory.  And that--I was only speaking of it from that standpoint.

MR. McQUAID:  I think, I think it excites independents.  I think it excites independents.  And I asked Mr. Axelrod before if they--they don't want Romney to go, they were exciting the base for Romney this morning with Axelrod's comments and what you were showing about no moral core, etc.  Jeez.

MS. KAY:  I think it's the kind of--it, it seems that in the country, this sort of general zeitgeist has shifted from a real loathing of big government to, to some extent, fears about the middle class being squeezed and problems of inequality.  And I think, in that context, Newt Gingrich's comments about the working poor and poor kids who can only find work if it's illegal come across as the wrong tone in the country at the moment.  That's not where America is at the moment.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  (Unintelligible)...foremost on people's minds.  It'd be different if that--if people were running around saying, "Gosh, what are we going to do about this issue?" I applaud him for talking about poverty and talking about issues affecting poor people.  But you can't applaud someone if that's his answer.  And if that's the answer, if he's the nominee, Democrats are strengthening bold.  And to your point, we will--Democrats will win back seats in the Senate and may even take the House.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let--let me get a break in here.  When we come back talk about Mitt Romney, some of this difficulties on the campaign trail and how he looks in New Hampshire.  More with our roundtable right after this.


MR. GREGORY:  We're back with our political roundtable talking about major moments of the week on the campaign trail.  For Mitt Romney this was it, being questioned by Fox News.  As we look at the New Hampshire poll with Mitt Romney on top, Gingrich at 24 percent.  But this was the major moment for Romney being questioned by Fox News about flip-flops in his past.  Watch.

(Videotape, Tuesday)

MR. BRET BAIER:  Like the Union Leader, your critics charge that you make decisions based on political expediency and not core conviction.  You have been on the both sides of, of some issues, and there's videotape of you going back years speaking about different issues--climate change, abortion, immigration, gay rights.  How can voters trust what they hear from you today is what you will believe if you win the White House?

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Well, Bret, your list is just not accurate.  So, one, we're going to have to be better informed about my views on issues.  ...

MR. BRET BAIER:  Do you believe that that was the fight thing for Massachusetts, do you think a mandate--mandating people to buy insurance is the right tool?

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Bret, I don't know how many hundred times I've said this, too.  This is an unusual interview.  All right, let's do it again. Absolutely...

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Mark Halperin, he was uncomfortable there.

MR. HALPERIN:  My simple view of presidential politics, you win when you're controlling your public image, and you lose when your public image is a negative.  He had a horrible week, not just that interview, but in general he is being characterized as a flip--an unprincipled flip-flopper by Joe's, Joe's paper, and by implication, and...

MR. GREGORY:  Your magazine.

MR. HALPERIN:  ...and, and the cover of Time and the cover of The New York Times Magazine.  This is--this is his problem to winning the nomination.  I think he's--if it's a long fight between him and Gingrich and others, I think he'll win.  He's got the best organization, the most money, they're on the ballot everywhere, etc.  If this is a quick strike by Newt Gingrich, winning Iowa, winning New Hampshire, or South Carolina and Florida, the establishment in the past would rally to Romney.  The establishment has no great love for him.  They look at that interview, it panics some them to say, "Yes, we don't want Newt Gingrich at the top of the ticket, but look at Mitt Romney.  We don't want him either." He has got to gain back control of his image.  He has got to be seen as something besides an unprincipled flip-flopper.

MR. GREGORY:  Joe, you took a swipe at him in your endorsement of Gingrich as somebody who just tells you want you want to hear.

MR. McQUAID:  Without, without naming him, but I guess I wasn't that subtle...

MR. HALPERIN:  Not that subtle, no.

MR. McQUAID:  ...because people, people figured it out.

MR. HALPERIN:  We all figured it out.

MR. GREGORY:  Even I got it.

MR. McQUAID:  And we, we had to go back into the files, like you guys do on MEET THE PRESS, to whack him this morning.  We have a cartoon running of him running a dog sled, and he's telling the dogs, "Go left, go right, go left, go right." Actually, it's not him, it's his father from 1968.


MR. McQUAID:  He had the same problem of going back and forth.  I think the Bret Baier interview was just a killer for him.  He's back on his heels.  And Katty is right, his team's got to make the decision what to do with Gingrich because it could really change if Iowa or New Hampshire don't go for him.

MS. KAY:  But here's what's interesting, and to some extent, you could level similar charges against Newt Gingrich, that he has changed positions on health care, on education.  He did that ad with Nancy Pelosi on the environment, on climate change.  And yet, he, Newt Gingrich seems to be immune to these charges.  And I think it's, you know, a reflection of how dissatisfied, clearly, the conservative base is with Mitt Romney.  But the--he has--Newt Gingrich has similar issues in his own past, but the base seems to be in a curiously willing mood to forgive him those transmissions.

MR. GREGORY:  Immigration is one of those issues, and, and last Sunday we played a clip from Mitt Romney on this program in 2007.  His advisers were concerned about that.  They thought that we didn't show the full context, which shows consistency, in their view, on that issue.  I want to go back on this issue of what to do with illegal immigrants in the country, and Mitt Romney's--the full answer to that question, or at least the full, the full sentence as he was asked about it in 2007 by Tim Russert.  Watch.

(Videotape, December 16, 2007)

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Those people who have come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship.  But they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally.  And that, I think, is the great flaw in the final bill that came forward from the Senate.

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  But they shouldn't have to go home?

FMR. GOV. ROMNEY:  Well, whether they go home--they should go home eventually.  There's a set--in my view, they should be--they should have a set period during which period they, they sign up for application for permanent residency or, or for citizenship.  But there's a set period where upon they should return home.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  The question for everybody, is he not consistent, as his team points out, that the fault line in that debate is whether you should be somehow rewarded for being here illegally.  He is saying then, no, and he says no now.

FMR. REP. FORD JR.:  I think he's probably where a lot of Americans are.  I don't know what--I mean, he's been over them all over on some issues and all. But I have to tell you, I don't think that the American people will punish a candidate for any high, high office who's--he or she has matured and thought differently about issues.  I'm an example of it.  I was opposed to marriage equality three years ago.  I have a different opinion on it now because my wife has helped me understand the issue, I've listened to the public dialogue in a very different way.  I was against--I was for certain aspects of abortion, I'm now against certain aspects of abortion after learning more about the issue and have been able to explain it.  His fundamental problem is that it looks as if it's all motivated by politics.  If Romney cannot explain some of these shifts or changes in opinion based on different thought processes, fundamentally rethinking and understanding it, if it's only interpreted as political expediency, he'll lose, not only the primary, but he won't win a general election.

MR. GREGORY:  Quickly, on immigration, is he vulnerable or not?

MR. HALPERIN:  Well, in the context of running against Newt Gingrich, I don't think he's vulnerable because Gingrich is to his left on this.  Whatever Romney's actual position is, whether he's changed or not, Gingrich is to his left.  I think if he's the nominee he may lose in the general election right now because he's been acting as a hard-liner on immigration, and the Hispanic community does not like it.  And in a lot of battleground states, they could decide it.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Another quick break here.  We'll come back with our Trends and Takeaways.  Don't go away.


MR. GREGORY:  Our final moments here.  We talked to David Axelrod, senior campaign adviser, earlier in the program.  For--he's for the president, of course, talking about Mitt Romney and this claim that they've made that he has no core.  Watch.

(Videotape, earlier this morning)

MR. AXELROD:  When it comes to his public character, he, he doesn't have a core.  It has nothing to do with his personal life.  I honor his personal life, I respect his personal life.  But this is about how you behave in the public arena.

MR. GREGORY:  But you...

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Obama's getting ready to go negative pretty hard and pretty personal.

MR. HALPERIN:  No matter who the Republicans nominate, they will.  Mitt Romney is, is a, is a man who is not--who's let others define him.  The White House has done a very aggressive job.  Republicans against him are doing an aggressive job.  Gingrich will do an aggressive job if he's attacked.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MR. HALPERIN:  It's a real challenge for Romney to figure out how to get through this process stronger rather than weaker.

MR. GREGORY:  And, of course, Republicans are coming after Obama pretty hard, too, so this is on both sides of it.

To our Trend Tracker, look what's trending this morning.  As you might expect, Gingrich, topping the Iowa polls, as we've talked about, the Cain story, and the Huckabee Forum with Republican candidates overnight.  The economy, as well, is such a huge issue.  The president's talking about it.  And the impact of Europe is still a big drain on this economy.

MS. KAY:  Right.  It's not on your Trend Tracker, David, but if Europe falls apart, there will be a major impact on markets, on confidence, there'll be a big impact on American banks, and there'll be an impact on American exporters to Europe.  This is something that is outside of the White House's control, but it threatens to seriously impact the 2012 election campaign.  They're sending Tim Geithner to Europe this week to try and talk tough to European leaders.  But coming from a country that isn't actually able to get much done politically itself, it's kind of hard to say to Europeans, "You've got to get your political house in order."

MR. GREGORY:  All right, we'll be watching that.  Thanks to all of you.

Before we go today, you can watch our latest Press Pass conversation with Politico's Mike Allen, the man whose "Morning Playbook" is a must read for political junkies.  He's the co-author of a new ebook "The Right Fights Back." And we go behind the scenes in the race for the Republican nomination.  It's at our website

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