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October 21: Marco Rubio, David Axelrod, Rob Portman, Dee Dee Myers, Mike Murphy, Tom Friedman, Helene Cooper, Chuck Todd

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This morning on MEET THE Press, roughly two weeks to go and the final push is for women voters.  The president in battleground Virginia at week’s end, hoping to keep the gender gap in his favor among women by attacking his opponent.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Governor Romney wants to take us to policies more suited to the 1950s.

(End videotape)


MITT ROMNEY:  This president has failed America’s women.  They’ve suffered in terms of getting jobs.

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  Looking at the record and looking forward.  What will tomorrow’s final showdown mean for the final days?  We hear from both campaigns this morning.  For Governor Romney, Senator Marco Rubio from the all-important state of Florida.  For the president, senior adviser David Axelrod.  And later, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, Romney’s debate sparring partner.  Joining us live from the debate site.

Plus, our roundtable weighs in--from The New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman; and White House correspondent Helene Cooper; Republican strategist Mike Murphy; and former White House press secretary for President Clinton Dee Dee Myers.

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

GREGORY:  And brand new this morning, the latest NBC News Wall Street Journal Poll on where this race stands?  Let’s go right to my colleague, Chuck Todd.  You’ve got the numbers.  This is significant.

MR. CHUCK TODD:  It is.  Look at this.  This is among likely voters, David, 47, 47.  Now, not all tied races are equal.  The president sitting at 47; if this were the Sunday before Election Day, there would be a lot of concerns in Chicago. They want to be at 48 or 49.  Sitting at 47 is a good number for a challenger, not a good number for an incumbent.  Let’s go inside the numbers a little bit.  The gender gap, you brought it up, among men, Romney, a ten-point lead.  Let’s go to women.  This is interesting.  President, an eight-point lead here, this is actually his smallest lead among women that we’ve had all year long.  A few other things inside the numbers here, David.  In the Midwest, Romney, a narrow lead, but way inside the margin of error.  And among all of the collective battleground states, a little bit of a lead for Mitt Romney.  Speaking of the battleground, I want to go there a minute.  If you look at where both campaigns think each is ahead, the South, you’ve got to give it to Romney here.  They think narrowly ahead.  For the president, they think Nevada looks good for him and New Hampshire.  So, then you look where is this race getting decided?  Those four states.  Colorado, David, might be the closest in the country, but it’s the Midwest that is the ticket to 270 electoral votes.

GREGORY:  All right.  Chuck Todd, we’re going to be talking about these numbers over the next couple of days as we get more from our-- our poll.  Chuck, thank you very much.

Joining me now is Republican Senator of Florida Marco Rubio.  Senator, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL):  I’m glad to be back.  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Let’s talk where Chuck left off about Florida.  Looking at the president’s schedule, he looks to be focusing a little bit more on Ohio.  In your judgment, you’ve seen the numbers.  Is Florida Romney red at this point?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, we-- we like the way Florida is going.  We always predicted it would go this way because two things have happened over the last couple of weeks.  Number one is the American people have gotten to see Mitt Romney up close as he offers his vision of the future and what he would do as president.  But even more startling is the president’s complete failure to put forth an agenda for the next four years.  I mean, if you look at the statements he has been making on the campaign stump over the last 72 hours or even the last two weeks, he doesn’t talk about the future.  He doesn’t talk about his governing plan for the next four years.  It’s all attacks against Mitt Romney down the stretch here.  And I think-- you saw those numbers just a moment ago, I think they’re only going to get better for the Republican side both in Florida and nationally as we move forward.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about something that’s developing this morning.  In The New York Times, exclusive reporting about Iran.  This is The New York Times lead this morning.  It is U.S. officials say Iran has agreed to nuclear talks.  “The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.  Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating."  What is your reaction to this?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, my reaction is the White House has denied it, and so I don’t think there’s much more to talk about.  They’ve denied that.  Let-- let me say this.  Obviously, war is always the last option.  No one wants a war.  We would hope this could get solved in another way.  I think the military option has to be on the table, and both candidates have said that.  And I also think there is concern.  No, I’m not talking about this story now, but just in general that Iran has often used negotiations in the past to buy themselves time.  But the White House is denying that story this morning, and therefore there’s not much to talk about.

GREGORY:  Well, what they’re denying is that there hasn’t been a final decision.  And we know what that means in Washington.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a case closed here.  Generally speaking, if it’s President Romney, do you think he has a duty to give diplomacy one-on-one talks if they are open to it a chance?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, I think he’s talked about that.  He has said that war and any kind of armed conflict is the last option, everything else should fail.  But at the same time, I think he’s very cognizant of the fact that Iran has used negotiations in the past to buy themselves time.  I think under a President Romney you would not have to haggle with the White House about sanctions.  I think they would lead on sanctions, including continuing to increase sanction from our partners, increase pressure on Russia and other countries to participate in those sanctions.  At the same time, I think that a-- a president with a clear vision of what it is he wants to ultimately accomplish, and that’s preventing a nuclear capacity, a nuclear weapons capacity by Iran, may actually help further that-- that process along.

GREGORY:  Governor Romney has said that crippling sanctions like those now in place by the administration are things that he’d like to see continued.  So not a tremendous…

SEN. RUBIO:  Yeah.

GREGORY:  …amount of difference there.  Let me move on.  The President on the campaign trail says there’s a new condition out there called “Romnesia,” which is that Governor Romney is walking away from previous positions.  The issue of contraception and abortion seems to be one in the fight for women voters here.  And I want to talk that through with you a little bit.  I was in Ohio this week, and, of course, you can’t miss the campaign ads there.  And this is one-- a part of one that the Romney campaign is running.  I want to-- I want to play a portion of it and then discuss it with you.  Here it is.

(Videotape; Campaign Ad)

SARAH:  Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all.  In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life.

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  So two issues there, contraception, access to contraception, and abortion.  So let’s separate those two for just a moment.  First of all, on the issue of contraception, we know that Governor Romney supported that, measure in congress that would have said to employers, look, you don’t have to provide access to contraception if it violates your own moral code or religious code, to any employer.  Now that was not passed.  That was the Blunt amendment.  But he supported that.  And yet, listen to what he talked about in the course of the campaign in this last debate on this very issue.  Watch.

(Videotape; second presidential debate, Tuesday)

MITT ROMNEY:  I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.  Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  So I don’t see how both things can be true.

SEN. RUBIO:  Sure.

GREGORY:  If he supports a measure that would say to employers you don’t have to provide access and then he’s saying everybody should have access, how do both things become true?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, because-- I think that’s a general statement about most employers.  But there are a handful of employers that have conscientious objections to it, for example, the Catholic Church.  This is not an issue about contraception.  No one is talking about banning contraception.  No one is talking about preventing people from gaining access to contraception.  This just happens to conflict with a constitutional principle of religious liberty.  And for example, the Catholic Church teaches against contraception.  And-- and to force the Catholic Church or its institutions to have to pay for something that’s against their religious teachings violates their religious rights.  And I think that’s the governor…

GREGORY:  But the Blunt amendment said that any employer, Senator, any employer with a reli--…

SEN. RUBIO:  Well.

GREGORY:  …with-- with a moral objection, religious or otherwise, could-- didn’t have to provide access to contraception.  So how is that consistent with him saying that every woman should have access?

SEN. RUBIO:  Because obviously, they have to have a well-found-- and it has to be a real objection.  And certainly if they-- if they were faking the objection, it would be-- I think they would be pilloried in public-- in public coverage of it.  The truth is the Catholic Church, for example, which is the impetus of this, which-- the folks that are leading the charge against this has a well-founded, longtime and historical opposition to contraception.  They teach that in the church.  And the-- and the Obama ruling-- the Obama administration’s ruling and mandates on this issue run counter to those religious rights, those religious protections that are constitutional principles.

GREGORY:  On the question of abortion, true or untrue, Governor Romney has said that he would sign a bill that banned abortion should that come to his desk?

SEN. RUBIO:  But, and I think what he’s saying-- he’s laying out very clearly what his record is on.  And the ex-- exceptions that he supports.  And there’s diversity on those in the Republican Party.  But he has also clearly said he is pro-life.  He has never run away from his record as a pro-life candidate or a pro-life governor before that.  But he is setting clear what he believes the exceptions are that he stands for.

GREGORY:  But that he would sign a-- a bill if it came to that to ban abortion.

SEN. RUBIO:  He’s pro-life.  And he has talked about how he’s pro-life.  He also believes in certain exception.  And that ad you have just played, what it does is it identifies those exceptions that he believes in.

GREGORY:  Let me talk more generally about how he relates to women, again, because this has become such an issue on the campaign trail as our piece to the very top setup.  You know, when he talked about flexibility in schedules, he talked about the binders full of women that he received from some women’s groups when he was looking to fill his cabinet with posts when he was governor of Massachusetts.  He talked about the-- the importance of flexibility so that, you know, women could get home early to be with their kids and make dinner.  And he’s gotten some criticism for that because it seems that there’s a narrow view of what women’s view-- roles are both at home and in the workplace. 

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post wrote this in her column on Friday, and I’d like your reaction to it.  She writes, “Listen closely to Romney not just in the debate but in his comments about women throughout the campaign, and you hear not only modern manager but fifties dad.  He speaks of the dignity of work when talking about welfare moms.  But at heart, he seems convinced that children are better off when mothers stay at home.”  Look, Senator, you’re-- you’re forty-two, you’re of a different generation, as a-- as father and as a husband, can you understand why some women have that reaction, they seem sort of out of touch with what modern women are going through?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, first of all, let me correct to you, I’m forty-one.  I only feel forty-two.

GREGORY:  You know, I thought we were the same age.

SEN. RUBIO:  Let-- let me-- just couple things I want to say about that.  Number one-- number issue in America, especially for women but for all Americans, is an economy that’s growing and creating opportunities.  And that’s why you just read a poll that the-- the gender gap is narrowing.  The reason why is because Barack Obama is not offering anything.  What’s he going to do over the next four years economically so that women that are graduating from the universities can find jobs in the professions that they’re studying for?  That’s the number one issue in America, it’s the number two issue in America, it’s the overriding issue in America, and the president is failing to put forward what is his plan for the next four years.  What’s his plan?

GREGORY:  But, my-- my question has to do with again the-- the perception, real or not, about whether Mitt Romney gets it when it comes to what women are dealing with in the workplace today and in their own choices that they face today.

SEN. RUBIO:  The-- there are going to be columnists and folks on the left that don’t like Mitt Romney, do not support Mitt Romney.  They’re going to come up with all sorts of interesting arguments between now and Election Day.  I think that’s absurd.  He has a record of placing highly-qualified women both in his administration and his campaign and throughout his life.  And the debate, this is silly outrage.  It’s not-- it’s not even real outrage.  He was discussing a process that they went through to identify qualified women for important positions in his administration.  I mean I think his record speaks for himself on that in terms of the way he’s behaved himself in both private life and in his campaign.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about another big issue in your state, you know it well, and that’s the issue of Medicare.  What we do about the fact that Medicare is going broke and that something has to be done with-- with health care costs that affect the Medicare program.  There’s a Romney ad that features you and this is a portion of it.

(Videotape; Campaign Ad)

SEN. RUBIO:  My mother’s eighty-one and depends on Medicare.  We can save Medicare without changing hers, but only if younger Americans accept that our Medicare will be different than our parents when we retire in thirty years.  But after all they did for us, isn’t that the least we can do?

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  So what the Romney-Ryan ticket wants to do is change Medicare by offering premium support or a voucher to seniors to be able to purchase health care in the private market, choices of health care plans under Medicare including traditional Medicare.  But you said, as a forty-one-year-old, thirty years from now, when we retire.  But that’s not accurate, Senator, their plan would actually make these changes in ten years.  So if you’re a senior, if you’re fifty-five years old, you have to think about the impact of these policies.  If they have the right idea, why not do it now?  Why not put these changes in place and affect your mother’s Medicare right now?

SEN. RUBIO:  Well, first of all, because I think it’s doable without disrupting my mother’s Medicare and people in her generation.  In the ad I was describing the impact it would have on people like me on my generation, and the truth is our Medicare is going to look different.  We’re going to have more choices.  Ours is probably going to be adjusted for how wealthy we are when we retire.  Wealthy people will get less of a premium support.  We’re going to have more options.  It’s still going to be the best plan in the world.  This is just going to a little different than what our parents have.

GREGORY:  But if it was such a good idea, why not say to your mom, hey, look, you’ve to realize that we’re-- this system is going broke.  You have to make the adjustment now, and it’s going to be great for you.  You’re not going to have to pay anymore or is there fear that doing that would actually make your mom pay more?

SEN. RUBIO:  Because two things, number one, if you’re eighty-one years old like my mom, you really-- you can’t afford and you can’t sustain the disruptiveness of an immediate change to her plan.  Number one, they’ve paid into that plan all of these years.  They retired with that promise.  And at eighty-one years of age, you’re not in a position now all of a sudden accept wholesale changes to the way the health care is delivered for you.  And that’s exactly-- that kind of disruptive change is what we’re trying to avoid.  And the sooner we change, the sooner we go ahead and-- and put some of these measures in plus-- place, the less likely it will be that anyone that’s a current beneficiary will have to be disrupted.  And that’s why it’s so troubling that the president has failed to put forward any agenda for the next four years including one that shows how you save Medicare.  Where is the president’s plan to save Medicare?  Is it now a pretty good time to offer it?  I mean, what is he waiting for?

GREGORY:  All right.  We’re going to leave it there as the debate continues.  Senator Rubio, thank you as always.

SEN. RUBIO:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Now let’s turn to the senior adviser to President Obama’s re-election campaign, David Axelrod.  David, welcome back.

MR. DAVID AXELROD (President Obama’s Re-election Campaign):  Thanks, David.  Good to be with you.

GREGORY:  Lot of to get to.  And I’ll allow you to respond to Senator Rubio.  I’m sure there’s multiple areas where you’d like to do that.  I want to start with foreign policy.  It’s the focus of this final big debate.  And on the question of Iran, and the New York Time story this morning, to repeat saying that there is now the prospect of direct talks between the Obama administration and the Iranian officials over their program.  What's not finalized according to the White House is whether this is a final deal but there is the potential there.  You’re here this morning speaking for the president.  Why does he think such direct contact may actually be critical at this juncture to avoiding potential military showdown with Iran?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I don’t want to go too deeply into what may or may not happen because the White House has said there is, as you say, no-- no deal, and I don’t have any inside details of that nor should I.  But here’s what I do know.  For-- for two years, the president traveled the world, putting together a withering international coalition.  And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.  And there’s a tremendous disquiet in Iran.  Their currency has dropped in value by 50 percent.  Their oil business has dropped by 50 percent.  There’s restiveness in the-- in their political environment there.  And they’re feeling the heat.  And that’s what the sanctions were meant to do.  So it’s not-- if they’re sensible, they are looking at that and saying it’s time to-- to set aside our nuclear ambitions and-- and save our economy.  And that’s-- that’s what the president’s been working on.  That’s a project he’s been working on for all of these years.  Remember, when he came to office, we were isolated in our position on Iran and in the world.  And today the world is unified against Iran with us.  All because of the leadership of this president.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Libya.  This will certainly come up again in the response to the-- the killing of our ambassador Chris Stevens in the Benghazi consulate as well as three other Americans as-- as part of that attack.  The issue has been that there’s been inconsistency from the administration with regard to how they described this.  The president did call it an act of terror the day afterward, but he also made reference in those very same remarks to the potential that this was a response to a video that was getting-- anti-Islam video that was causing disruptions in Egypt as well.  This is how Paul Ryan, of course the running mate to Governor Romney, is describing the situation.  He did it in a radio interview on Friday.

(Videotape; Radio 620 WTMJ/Friday)

PAUL RYAN (Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) Republican VP Nominee News):  The problem is their story continues to shift; you know, they refuse to answer the basic questions about what happened.  You know, and so his response has been inconsistent, it’s been misleading and more than a month later, we still have more questions than answers.  The Benghazi thing would be a tragedy in and of itself if it was an isolated incident.  The problem is it’s not simply an isolated incident but a picture of a broader story of the absolute unraveling of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

(End videotape)

DYLAN DREYER:  And David, as you know, the argument is that this central claim of the administration to have dealt a withering blow to al Qaeda, including killing Osama bin Laden, is undermined by an attack like this and further chaos in the Middle East.  How do you respond?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I think that’s nonsense.  Obviously, this was a tragic event, and the president did call it an act of terror not-- not just once but several times, and-- and asked for and ordered an investigation to get to the bottom of what happened, why it happened, and to bring those who committed this act of terror to justice.  And that’s what he’s going to do.  There’s only one candidate here who has tried to exploit it from the beginning, even while the flames were burning in Benghazi.  Mitt Romney was sending out political press releases on this.  And the whole Republican Party has followed.  And on-- on Friday, Chairman Issa in the house on the Republican side released a reef of-- of documents that he asked for that included the names of people on the ground in Libya who are cooperating with us and helping us on these security issues, jeopardizing their lives, carelessly, recklessly putting them at risk, all to score political points in the final weeks before an election.  That’s disgraceful.  The way they have handled this issue is disgraceful.  And to hear Paul Ryan make the case, who is budget committee chair, wanting to cut back on our request for security funding for these embassies and consulates, makes it even worse.

GREGORY:  But this wouldn’t be an issue, would it, if the administration had a consistent response to what occurred there?

MR. AXELROD:  David, there’s investigation ongoing with the intelligence community.  The FBI is on the ground.  And we have reported, the administration has reported everything that we’ve been-- that we’ve been told.  And we’ve shared it in real time.  The fact is, it’s a complicated situation.  We’re thoroughly looking-- looking at what happened there and reporting to the American people on it.  There’s been no inconsistency.  There’s merely been reports on the data and the intelligence that we’ve been given.  And the intelligence community has been clear on this that they have been doing the best they can, giving us the intelligence they have.  We’ve been sharing that intelligence.  And-- and we’ll continue to do so.

GREGORY:  Generally, the attack that has come on this president from his opposition, from Governor Romney and from Paul Ryan, and you heard it from Senator Rubio, a lack of a second term agenda.  Is it fair, that criticism?  Has the president spent more time trying to disqualify Romney as an alternative than affirmatively saying what a second term would actually look like?

MR. AXELROD: You know, I heard Senator Rubio say what the president is saying around the country.  I have never seen Senator Rubio at one of the president’s events but if he did come to one of the president’s events what he’d hear is the president making the case for how we built an education system second to none so we have the best trained workers in the world.  How we build-- how we get control of our energy’s future not just by drilling for oil and gas, but by commanding the new sources of energy that China and India and Germany and other countries are working on.  How we rebuild manufacturing in this country not by giving tax breaks to companies that move overseas, but by giving tax breaks to the companies that are starting up here.  And how we deal with our deficits in a balanced way so that we are cutting back where we have to, asking the wealthy to pay a little bit more, something Governor Romney refuses to do, and investing in those things we need to grow this economy.  We have a very specific agenda moving forward.  On the other hand, what you hear from Governor Romney are a lot of chapter heads with no chapters and a plan to spend seven trillion dollars more on tax cuts and more money for the Pentagon that they’re not even asking for, with no plan to pay for it.  So if there’s anyone who’s running without a real plan here, it’s Governor Romney.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about the state of the race--

MR. AXELROD: And to the extent he has when-- to the extent he has when, David, it’s going back to the same policies we had under the last administration, tax cuts for the wealthy, rolling back rules on Wall Street, and hoping that somehow if the folks at the top do well that the rest of the country will do well.  We tried it.  It doesn’t work.  We can’t go back to that.

GREGORY:  Finally, with the state of the race at this point, first, we’re beyond the debate expectations nonsense.  What are the stakes, though, in this final debate of a serious conversation about differences about foreign policy?  Preview that for me.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I think it’s going to be an important debate.  I don’t think any one event is decisive, but this is an important issue.  Even though being strong at home and rebuilding our economy is the number one issue, people want to know that they have a strong, steady hand in the Oval Office, and they don’t want someone who’s reckless and who has been consistently wrong on foreign policy issues as Governor Romney has.  We all remember his Dukes of Hazard Tour of international destinations over the summer where he not only roiled countries that are not friendly to us but our best ally, Britain.  He was wrong on Libya.  He was wrong on Iraq.  So, you know, the people are going to have a chance to take a measure of these two guys and say, who do I want as the commander-in-chief?  Who do I want leading the war on terror?  And I think we’re going to-- I think that’s a very stark contrast.

GREGORY:  Finally, state of the race now as you handicap the final weeks.   You heard Chuck Todd with our new numbers 47-47.


GREGORY:  And he said 47 for the president is not a good number for an incumbent.   If it was a Sunday before Election Day, you’d be very worried.  How concerned are you about that right now, including the fact that in total Romney seems to have an edge in the battleground states?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, first of all, David, I would say on this battleground state issue, you guys also issued polls in the last week that showed us with an eight-point lead in Iowa.  I think we had a lead in Ohio.  You’ve showed us having a lead in Florida.  So I don’t know how to square all the polling that NBC is releasing.  But I do think that this is going to be a very close race, and we’ve said that consistently.  I think if you look back at your tape, every time I visited with you I have predicted that this will be a close race.  But we feel good about where we are.  We feel we’re even or ahead in these battleground states.  And if you look at the early voting that’s going on around the country, it’s very robust and it’s very favorable to us.  And we think that’s a better indicator than these public polls which are frankly all over the map.

GREGORY:  All right.  We’re going to leave it there.  David Axelrod, thanks very much.

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

GREGORY:  Coming up here, our political roundtable weighs in.  We’ll preview this important debate about foreign policy and issues we’ve been talking about this morning.  Also a look at the strategy for both sides in light of that polling and in light of what you heard from David Axelrod in the closing weeks of this campaign.  Democratic strategist Dee Dee Myers is here, Republican strategist Mike Murphy, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Helene Cooper of the New York Times.  She broke the story on Iran today.  Plus a little later on we’re going to hear from Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, a top adviser to Governor Romney.  He’s also sparring partner for these debates.  Roundtable, coming up next.


GREGORY:  Coming up here, the countdown to the final debate.  Our roundtable weighs in on what to look for.  Plus, Ohio Senator Rob Portman joins us, coming up in a few minutes, just after this brief break.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether it’s secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we have lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.  That’s not what we do.  That’s not what I do as president.  That’s not what I do as commander in chief.

GREGORY:  That was the Libya exchange in Tuesday’s debate.  It’s going to get hot and heavy again tomorrow in the final debate down in Florida.  We’re back with our political roundtable.  Joining me now, White House correspondent of the New York Times, Helene Cooper, who broke this Iran story which we’ll get to in just a moment; New York Times columnist, co-author of That Used To Be Us, Tom Friedman; Republican strategist and columnist for TIME magazine Mike Murphy; and Democratic strategist, former White House press secretary for President Clinton, of course, Dee Dee Myers, welcome to all of you.  Let’s talk Libya, Tom Friedman.  What do we to make of all of this?  Could this be politicized any further?

MR. THOMAS FRIEDMAN (Columnist, New York Times/Co-Author, That Used to be Us):  Well, it’s-- it’s obviously been totally politicized at this point.  You know, David, we were talking earlier, I-- I lived in a Civil War in Beirut for over four years.  These are incredibly messy situations.  People don’t show up with uniforms.  David Gregory, al Qaeda.  Mike Murphy, Ansar al-Islam, you know…

(Cross talk)

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Exactly.  You know, I mean, you can have a flash mob turned into a planned thing.  You can have planned people inside of a flash mob.  To me, this is utterly contrived story in the sense that this is the end of the Obama’s foreign policy.  I think we’re missing two things.  One is the-- the global picture.  What’s going on in the Arab world since the Arab Spring?  We’ve seen the breakdown of what’s called the Mukhabarat state.  Mukhabarat is intelligence service in Arabic.  We’ve seen all of these states are collared, all of these, you know, Islamists and jihadists, for us in many cases.  Those states have broken down, but a new order hasn’t arisen.  And that’s what you saw in Benghazi.  But here’s what’s also new.  And we have completely missed this story, and it’s a great thing for America.  Let’s-- let’s forget which candidate it might-- it might serve.  What happened immediately a day and a half after this incident in Libya?  Thousands of Libyans, carrying pictures of our ambassador, voluntarily marched on the militia headquarters that did this and took these guys down.  That-- that is one of the greatest successes for the United States possible.  We didn’t have to do it.  They did it, on their own.  And the fact that we’re not talking about that, but we’re talking about how many times you used the word terrorism and did you scratch your ear like, it’s nonsense.

GREGORY:  But what is-- seems to me to be an important policy question, Dee Dee Myers, we do know that this administration has asserted that it has done grave damage to al Qaeda.  And the-- the ultimate, of course, is-- is killing Osama bin Laden.  But here you have chaotic situations, including in Libya, where there were questions about whether there should-- was adequate security for a-- a diplomatic institution outpost like this.  Also the issue of what’s happened since.  The fact that the FBI couldn’t get in there even to investigate because of security.  And this from Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, which I think we should talk about.  He writes in-- in the magazine, “The man suspected of organizing the attack on the U.S. consulate, Ahmed Abu Khattala, spent two leisurely hours sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio with a reporter from the New York Times and boasting that he wasn’t even questioned by investigators from the governments of Libya and the United States.  We commend Times reporter David Kirkpatrick for getting the interview, but it raises an obvious question.  Why is it that more than a month after the attack, a New York Times reporter can spend two leisurely hours with the alleged mastermind, yet no agent of the U.S. government has ever approached him?”

MS. DEE DEE MYERS (Fmr. Clinton White House Press Secretary):  Well, your first question was about, al Qaeda more broadly.  It-- by the way, President Obama still did take out Osama bin Laden, and there’s no question about that.  And-- and the leadership of al Qaeda in many ways has been decimated, has been severely beat back.  That doesn’t mean that al Qaeda has disappeared from the world, and the administration has never claimed such a thing.  There’s no question that progress has been made.  As for Libya, the one-- I think, Tom described it best of all, it’s complete chaos on the ground.  And for every report about one group participating, there’s another group-- there’s-- there’s another report about that it wasn’t organized, it wasn’t-- it was a terrorist group, but not necessarily linked to al Qaeda.  There is so much confusing information and the reason that the administration’s story has evolved over time is that the intelligence has evolved, and we keep learning that, in fact, it was the intelligence community that told the administration that they didn’t-- that they thought that it wasn’t al Qaeda linked in the beginning, and now we have seen that continuing to play out.

GREGORY: To that-- to that point, Peter King of Homeland Security Committee has released a letter and I’ll put it on the screen here.  This is what it says.  “Chairman King calls on President Obama to release intelligence community reporting that led to the administration’s changing characterizations of the Benghazi attack.”  So, Mike Murphy, we now have the intelligence community putting out basically everything it knew at that time as well.  What-- so, what did we learn?  What’s the purpose?

MR. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Strategist/Columnist, TIME magazine):  Well-- well, what we learned?  One is the world is very sloppy, as-- as Tom says.  Second, presidential campaign season is the worst time to get into serious foreign policy because all of the incentives are politics and-- and hot language.  And third, I think it was kind of a train wreck on all sides.  I-- I’m a Romney guy, but they put out a dumb press release too early.  That was a bad idea.  Then, the administration has been wiggling all over the place with different stories.  There’s finger pointing.  Now the permanent institution, the intelligence community, has kind of taken their shot.  The whole thing has been, I’d say, kind of a middle level train wreck.  And I don’t think it’s going to really change the outcome of the election, but it takes the edge off all these bragging points that the president has had on foreign policy.

GREGORY:  Well, that’s…

MR. MURPHY:  It looks like there’s incompetence to it.

GREGORY:  Yeah, but Helene, that’s the question that-- that I have, which is if I’m watching all of this, and maybe I’m an undecided voter, we want to find who these people are, but if I’m out there, what’s the bigger point about all of this that I should be giving some serious attention to, if at all?

MS. HELENE COOPER (White House Correspondent, New York Times):  I think that’s a really good question.  I-- I wonder whether a lot of these undecided voters are actually-- if they do exist, are actually thinking that.  I think as an American, you have to look at-- the question of embassy security is one that-- that is definitely, you know, it should be looked at.  The administration has to study that.  But the larger issue is the issue of the-- the Arab Spring and what’s happening in this key area, a key region-- region for American Foreign Policy.  And that’s where you’re seeing in Libya, in Egypt, in all-- in Yemen and all over this region you have new governments in place, you have democracy for the first time with all of the mess that it-- that comes with it.  And I think Americans need to be-- I think Tom’s point is excellent about the response of the Libyan people.  I think in the Egypt case that you didn’t see quite the same response.  And I think that’s very worrying for the-- for the-- for the United States and for the administration.  But I think the far larger point is that we’re right now in the middle of-- the region is in the middle of such turmoil.  And we’re not-- we don’t seem to be addressing it in any meaningful way.  Instead, we’re like-- we’re talking about, you know, the death of four Americans which is why-- while incredibly tragic is-- is something that I think is peripheral to what’s going on right now.


MR. FRIEDMAN:  Well, you know, let’s-- let’s go to thirty thousand for a second because that’s the context-- should be the context for this presidential debate on foreign policy.  We’re in the middle of the break-up of two giant state systems.  We’re seeing the failure of the European super state and the crackup of the Eurozone and we’ve seen the failure of the Arab nation state in the Arab world.  And it’s all happening at a time when the world has never been more interdependent.  So we’ve got all these states now around the world in the-- Middle East in particular as Helene said, that are too dangerous to ignore, but too expensive to fix.  And that-- whoever is the next president is going to have to wind their way through that reality.  We can’t ignore them or we cannot fix them the way we did the old way, we need to think of a new way.

GREGORY:  So what is our role now, Mike, that’s going to be a key question?

MR. MURPHY:  Well, it’s a big issue and that’s what they have to litigate at the debate.  And I think the smarter candidate will go bigger.  What’s the specific strategy?  What’s the plan to not lose Egypt which is the real headline I think out of what happened in-- in the Benghazi event?  You know, what’s the Chinese strategy behind the economics?  I mean, there are huge questions here and if they spend the time quibbling over clocks and-- and--

GREGORY:  Right.

MR. MURPHY:  --quibbling over small tactical things, it’s a missed opportunity.

GREGORY:  It won’t be quibbling over Iran though and Helene, I want to come back to you on this because this is critical which is do you give diplomacy a chance?  Your reporting, if I’m summing it up accurately is that the White House is now prepared to meet one-on-one in effect direct talks with the Iranians about suspending their program.  Tell us more about this and this could both be a huge topic but also really matter if it happens.

MS. COOPER:  Oh, it absolutely matters because if there’s one place where, you know, you’re thinking about where the next-- where is the next place that Americans could end up sending troops, that’s, you know, where American troops could get involved, this is it, this is ground zero.  My colleague at the New York Times Mark Landler and I have been working on this story for-- for several weeks and we’ve been chasing it ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sort of hinted at this when he was in New York at the end of September and he came to the meeting with journalists, started talking about how Iran is interested in getting into talks with the United States after the elections.  This is something that the Obama administration has been pursuing for several years now.  They’ve been open to it.  Iran has not been so sure, they flip-flopped.  You had a lot of internal political maneuverings going on inside Tehran but the sanctions that have gone in effect, particularly the European oil embargo, and that went into effect in-- in June, the Iranians really thought they were-- could-- they were going to be able to figure out a way to forestall that but they couldn’t.  So the Iranian economy has really been hurt.  And so nobody really has rose colored glasses thinking that, you know, Americans and Iranians are going to sit down at a table, you know, one-on-one and figure this out.  But the belief is that you cannot make any sort of case for going to war if you haven’t exhausted all diplomatic options.

GREGORY:  Tom, how significant is it-- yeah.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Foreign policy is about leverage, David.


MR. FRIEDMAN:  It’s about, you know, who’s got the leverage.  And one thing the United States has successfully done with our European allies in recent months with these economic sanctions, when you cut someone’s currency in half, that’s leverage.

MR. MURPHY:  Right.  And by the way, that’s-- that’s Mitt Romney academy there.  I mean that-- this is like-- this thing politically could be interesting.  It-- who the American people like as the toughest guy to put the squeeze on somebody?  It might be the guy from Bain capital.

GREGORY:  All right.  I want to get to Dee Dee’s point in just a minute.  I want to turn though for a moment while we have into Mitt Romney’s sparring partner to prepare for the debates, he’s Ohio Senator Rob Portman.  You’re so many things but at the moment, you’re best known for being the prize sparring partner.  Senator, always good to have you on the program.  I’d like to have you comment on what we’ve been…

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (Ohio):  Thanks David.

GREGORY:  …discussing here which is this Iran story.  This is going to be a big topic.  And I guess-- my big question is where beyond the rhetoric does President Obama-- do President Obama and-- and Governor Romney differ on the path forward to Iran?

SEN. PORTMAN:  Well, first, I don’t know if it will be a big story because both the White House and the Iranians who said it’s not true, it sounds to me actually from what Helene just said that it’s another example of a national security leak from the White House, you know, and they’ve done a lot of that.  But, look, I think what you’re going to see is Governor Romney lay out a clear vision for how to get Iran to do the right thing, which is to stop its progress toward a nuclear weapon.  We’re four years closer to it.  What the president has tried has not worked.  It’s true that we started to-- we started to put sanctions in place, but, David, as you know, that’s because congress pressured the president to do it.  Other countries pressured us to do it.  France was ahead of us on this.  The other thing that gets interesting about this story, if it’s accurate, is that it sounds like the U.S. is taking a position that we’re likely to jettison our allies.  And, as you know, there are talks going on right now, the P5+1 talks, the last thing we would want to do is to abandon our allies in this and to make it a-- a one-on-one negotiation.  In fact, some of those allies, as I said earlier, have actually been more forward leaning than we’ve been to be sure these sanctions were tough and put in place.

GREGORY:  Let’s talk about Ohio, the state you represent.  It seems to be kind of a firewall right now for the president.  If they can hold Ohio, as you well know, it becomes very difficult for Governor Romney electorally the-- in the Electoral College to get to 270.  Here are some key stats here that we’ve put together--of course, electoral votes are 18.  No candidate since JFK has won the White House without Ohio.  You know that early voting started October 2nd.  The ad spending is staggering--a hundred and sixty mi-- sixty six million dollars.  I was there this week, and you can’t miss the ads, that for-- that’s for sure.  The president has an edge, an uphill climb at this juncture for Governor Romney in your state?

SEN. PORTMAN:  Well, I-- like what I see, David, because the trend is in our direction.  And as you know, I’ve been all over the state in the last couple of weeks.  I’ve-- I’ve spoken at six rallies, I think, and been to a lot of the victory call centers.  And the enthusiasm and energy is on our side this year.  I mean, it’s-- it’s not like 2008 at all.  We’ve made three times more phone calls than all of 2008 with our volunteers, 25 more door knocks than all of 2008.  So something is different on the ground.  And if you look at the polling, it’s trending our way.  So that’s where you want to be at this point in the campaign.

GREGORY:  I want to ask you about the economy.  And a key moment from the debate that has to do with Governor Romney’s tax and spend plan, his budget, his effort to reach a balance budget.  This is how the president went after it on Tuesday.  Let me play a portion of it.


PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor.  If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend seven or eight trillion dollars, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal.  And neither should you--the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  Now, here’s the thing.  I know the Romney campaign has six studies that say it does add up, but we don’t know exactly how.  I’ve talked to Erskine Bowles and Senator Simpson of-- of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and they say it simply doesn’t work that either the middle-class will have to pay more in taxes or you have to blow up the deficit.  What can you say, specifically, that has undecided voters out there getting some clarity about why the math works aside from asserting that it does work?

SEN. PORTMAN:  Well, David, two points.  One, it does work.  You mentioned the half dozen studies.  The president is talking about a study that is not the Romney plan.  That’s what’s been great about these debates, and this is why they have helped Mitt Romney in Ohio and around the country is that Mitt Romney has been able to tell people who he is and what his policies are rather than relying on these 30-second attack ads by the Democrats that, as you said, have been running hot and heavy in Ohio, mischaracterizing who he is, misrepresenting his policies.  So the policy does work.  It does fit together.  And it’s because it’s tax reform, it’s not just tax cuts.  And it does, you know, require looking at some of these deductions, credits, and exemptions, and so on.  So it does work.  It does fit together.  So that’s what these debates have been fantastic for in terms of Governor Romney.  Now second is Governor Romney has a plan.  And-- and that’s one thing that you’ve heard from a lot of folks already this morning on the show is that the president is out there attacking a plan.  Now he’s mischaracterizing it.  But at least Governor Romney has got a vision for the future.  And he’s got the plan to put America back to work.  That’s not what you hear from President Obama.  He’s talking about four more years of the last four years.  And if you’re an undecided voter in Ohio today, that’s not what you want to hear.  You know things are not going well.  You know you want a change.  Governor Romney has laid out a change, and in these debates he’s been able to talk about what he’s actually for and how it works.

GREGORY:  All right.  We’re going to leave it there.  Senator Portman, thank you very much.  We’ll be watching tomorrow night.

SEN. PORTMAN:  Thanks, David.  Thanks for having me on again.

GREGORY:  We are going to take a quick break, back with more, including a-- a preview of what to expect tomorrow night.  The big topic, we’ve talked a lot about foreign policy.  We’ll talk about some of the other issues that are potentially going to come up and look at the strategy and the state of the race here in the final weeks with our roundtable when we come back right after this.


GREGORY:  We’re back with our roundtable.  Here was a picture on Tumblr, actually.  What is that, of course?  That is binders full of women, which refers, of course to Mitt Romney’s reference to that.  Dee Dee Myers, the debate after that, about understanding women’s choices today, pressures they face, about access to contraception, about abortion, all of this seems to be an intense play right now as the administration, the president wants to-- to drive up that wedge and get women to vote for him.  What did you make of all of that?

MS. MYERS:  Well, first of all, I-- I think that the way that binders of women blew up was sig-- indicative that-- that women don’t trust something about-- about Romney and his position on women.  It’s-- it’s first of all, it’s-- why does he need binders of women?  He’s been out in the-- you know, 25 years in the private sector as-- as a governor, I mean, as-- as a candidate for governor, before that as a businessman, before that as-- during that time at the Salt Lake City Olympic, why didn’t he come with a network of women, right?  So he doesn’t any relationships with women, which just makes women suspicious.  Then it came out that he made up his role in that, which-- you know, took credit for something that 25 groups of women had done in-- in Massachusetts in order to-- in order to make sure that more women got into government.  And then it's his positions more broadly where he says he’s would-- is against abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother, except he would support Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe, he-- supported a Personhood Amendment, which would make abortion illegal under any circumstances and outlaw many forms of birth control.  Even though he says he supports access to contraception’s for all women, he’s been all over the map on every issue that’s important to women in this election.  He doesn’t have a plan to help narrow the pay gap, which is really important to women.  You know, women care about the economy, but in a recent poll 39 percent of women said abortion was the most important issue, jobs was a second, and third was access to-- equality in-- in the workforce and equal pay.

GREGORY:  But the gender gap is closing…

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah, I was going to say we…

GREGORY:  …among women.  Mike.

MR. MURPHY:  …we-- we talked to 65 million American women today via that poll, and the gender gap is definitely closing.  So the women of America are coming up with another definition.  One is, what’s always amazed me about the media since there’s no such thing in the world as a pro-life woman, it’s the most underrepresented, you know, group in the world we never talk about.  They’re very comfortable with Romney.  And a lot of pro choice women are because they know his priority is going to be the economy.  You know, I listen to this, this is the Democrat line.  But I-- I close my eyes because I worked for Romney when he was governor, and I imagined all the women I knew then who ran the place throwing stuff at the TV.  I think it’s ludicrous people vilifying Romney for being a leader among all governors in appointing-- I can’t even remember any of the men who worked there frankly.  When I think back, it’s 10 years ago and I’m getting old.  But it’s-- it’s-- I think it’s what I called a shiny object attack.  It’s the whole problem with the Obama campaign.  Push it into small divisive things to make up for the lack of any big vision.

GREGORY:  But I-- but I-- Helene, one of the things, and I talked about it with my wife and talked about it with some of my, you know, colleagues here at work.  When the example he cites about more flexibility for women had to do with so women could get home at five o’clock, be with their kids and cook dinner.  Now, look, there’s a lot of families who do make that choice, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  My understanding from my wife about feminism is respecting the choice.  And yet he talked about it in such a way that earned him that criticism, well, he’s just a little out of touch.  That he doesn’t understand what’s happening today.

MS. COOPER:  He really comes across that way, and I bet your wife wishes you cooked dinner sometimes, David.


MS. MYERS:  Maybe not.

MS. COOPER:  But that’s a different story.  I think he has the tendency when he talks about women to some, maybe he’s been watching Mad Men but he does sound very 1950s.  The whole idea of, you know, women rushing home to cook dinner is something that just didn’t-- I don’t think that sounded quite the way he would want to appear because that’s-- that’s a battle I think that women feel that they fought years ago.  We-- women have gone so far-- we’ve come so far now that-- that the idea-- that the whole idea of women, you know, should be able to go into the workplace and should be able to leave at a certain time.  For us to be, for women to be litigating that now just seems like he-- it makes him seem as-- as if he’s out of touch.

GREGORY:  Are we focused, Tom, too narrowly on some of these wedge issues and not getting the argument that Romney makes, which is, you know, ultimately women and men are going to be driven by the state of our economy, and what opportunity they have?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  David, I felt from the very beginning the most dangerous thing for Barack Obama is this attitude.  Barack Obama, nice guy, so glad we elected our first African-American.  He really tried hard.  But I just want to try something new.


MR. FRIEDMAN:  I think that’s always been the most dangerous thing for him.  And what Romney has done in the two debates is hit that button directly.  And I think what Obama has to do in the last debate is really come out with some real energy, excitement, and imagination about why he is going to create more jobs in the next four years.  And I would just take every issue on foreign policy back to this fact.  We can only be strong in the world, we can only have leverage in the world, if we are strong and resilient at home.  And if I’m Obama, my message is going to be I’m at all of these plans, race to the top, you know, innovation, entrepreneurship that are going to make us strong at home so we can be strong abroad.

GREGORY:  Beyond the women’s vote, Mike, take a minute, talk about state of the race strategies on both sides.

MR. MURPHY:  Sure.

GREGORY:  What does this going to come down to, and what do you make of 47, 47, Chuck said, dangerous number?

MR. MURPHY:  Absolutely real.  I think it’s moving toward Romney right now.  The debates are very good.  Romney ought to use it as a charm and mode of offensive to get people comfortable with him because they are starting to come around to the fact that he might be president and he has to close that final point.  It’s Ohio.  Ohio is closer, the firewall is on fire.  If you look at the demographics of Ohio, if Romney could perform as well with white voters there as he is in states like Virginia and Florida, there is room for him to grow.  So this firewall stuff, it’s a picket fence, it’s not a firewall.  The race is closing fast.

GREGORY:  Dee Dee, what do you see, what’s the key?

MS. MYERS:  I think Ohio is the key, although there are paths to 270 for President Obama that don’t include Ohio.  But unemployment went down again in Ohio at seven percent.  It’s the lowest it’s been in more than four years.  And I think this is the race the Obama campaign always expected to run, a razor’s edge, that’s why they invested so much in their GOTV operation around the country and we’re seeing the first fruits of that.

GREGORY:  Get out the vote.

MS. MYERS:  Yeah, the get out the vote operation.

GREGORY:  You (Unintelligible) inside it?

MS. MYERS:  I know, it’s terrible.

MR. MURPHY:  In Ohio, they traditionally win the early vote.

MS. MYERS:  Yes.  But you win it, and you win it by a lot, and that gives a firewall on Election Day when you don’t necessarily win the vote.  But all those-- everything we’ve seen, every measurable metric so far shows that the Obama campaign on the ground is as good and as innovative and strong as they said it was.

GREGORY:  I have got 30 seconds for each of you.  What would your topic area be for a question tomorrow night in this foreign policy debate?

MS. COOPER:  For Mitt Romney, I’d ask him about his pledge to-- to declare China a currency manipulator on day one.  Why does he think this a good idea given that this could lead to a trade war?


MS. COOPER:  For President Obama, I would ask him-- he criticized Mitt Romney for saying that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should be the kick the can down the road, I would ask President Obama whether he has not just done exactly that for the last two years.

GREGORY: Really quick, you and I asked about a carbon tax?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Would you support a carbon tax that will help us be less dependent on foreign oil, strengthen innovation at home and combat climate change…

GREGORY: All right.  We’re going to be watching the debate.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  ..and pay down the deficit.  These are the most important--

GREGORY:  Thank you all very much I want to end on this, earlier this morning, news came that longtime South Dakota senator in 1972, democratic presidential nominee George McGovern died after a long illness.  He was of course the champion for liberal causes and outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam.  He appeared on MEET THE PRESS nine times over the course of his career, including the day after he announced his candidacy for his first bid for president in 1968.

(Videotape, August 11, 1968, MEET THE PRESS)

SEN. GEORGE MCGOVERN (D-SOUTH DAKOTA):  My judgment is that the Democratic Party does not draw its strength now, nor has it ever drawn its strength, from trying to paper over honest differences that exist.  Now there are differences among democrats.  There are differences in the country over how we ought to approach our-- our problems in our own society and over how best to either conduct or end this war.  My candidacy doesn’t introduce those differences, the differences are there, and the great strength of the Democratic Party comes from the fact that we’ve been willing to face up to those differences, to lay them out on the table, to thrash them out among ourselves.

(End videotape)

GREGORY:  According to a statement released this morning, McGovern passed away peacefully this morning in South Dakota surrounded by his family.  He was 90 years old.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, of course. 

Thank you all very much for your discussion this morning.  Before we go, a programming note.  This week, Brian Williams joins President Obama for a series of interviews over the course of a couple of days on the campaign trail.  You can see those interviews on TODAY, NIGHTLY NEWS, and ROCK CENTER this week starting Wednesday.  That is all for today.  We’ll be back next week.  If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.