LYNN NEARY, HOST:
And now we're joined by our regular Friday commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to both of you.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
NEARY: So David, let's start with you. As we just heard, the gap between Romney and Gingrich has narrowed a bit in Iowa. And in last night's debate, it seemed like Romney was pulling back from the sort of attack mode he was in and maybe taking on front-runner status again, trying to stay above the fray. Is that a good strategy, you think?
BROOKS: I think so. He's really not a good attacker and so he got to benefit from other people attacking Gingrich while not having to do it himself. The whole campaign has been sort of various stampedes to zany land, whether it's Cain or Gingrich or anybody else. But I think we're beginning - there's evidence of a beginning of a return to normalcy. And so Romney had quite a good debate, I think. I think he benefitted a lot from the attacks and he presented himself quite well, unlike some previous debates.
Gingrich went down slightly. He got - nicked for the various Freddie Mac stuff and then his polls have begun to flatten out. And then, Ron Paul really had a bad debate. People like the fact that he's forthright, but the Iran foreign policy, which is a more Libertarian foreign policy, is really unpopular in a socially conservative state like Iowa. So you begin to see Gingrich weakening. Romney's still hanging in there and I think we're gonna head toward voters saying, we'll go with Mr. Good Enough.
NEARY: Let me ask you, E.J., about Freddie Mac because the other candidates didn't pull their punches with Gingrich, especially on that issue. Now, today, the SEC's announced fraud charges against former Freddie Mac executives. I mean, it seems to me, isn't this an issue that really does have the potential to hurt Gingrich ultimately?
DIONNE: I think it does have the potential to hurt Gingrich, partly because he made such strong statements about Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, earlier Democratic members of Congress from the Dodd-Frank bill, charging them with all sorts of things. But I think that Gingrich has, not invulnerability, but a certain benefit of the doubt from a very significant part of the Republican Party. I agree with David that Romney was much better last night.
I don't think Gingrich came out of that debate all that badly except for that Freddie Mac moment. It really did look like a Gingrich-Romney debate. I think it sort of looked more like a two person race that night. As for Ron Paul, I think that the kinds of Republicans who really disagree with him on foreign policy were never going to vote for him anyway. And I think that in terms of solidifying his base and looking like a very independent-minded Republican, he certainly succeeded in doing that again.
NEARY: David, you have pointed out that voters don't seem to be paying a whole lot of attention to pundits like yourself, who all seem to agree that Gingrich would make a bad president. So why do you think you guys are being ignored on this?
BROOKS: This makes me quake for the Republic. You know, I don't know if you've noticed, the country really doesn't like Washington. And that includes us, I guess.
NEARY: I hadn't noticed that, no.
BROOKS: And so there has been really a surge of opinion, not only from people like - squishes like me, but National Review this week had a very strong anti-Gingrich editorial. They didn't endorse anybody yet, but they said whatever it's going to be, it's not going to be Newt Gingrich. We have a great chance, as conservatives, to take over the country, win this election, and we want this election to be about Obama, not about Gingrich.
And yet, so far, there's been a reaction against all that. We'll see if that's true at the end of the day when people finally have to make a decision. One thing I'm very curious about. People know the flaws of all these candidates and it's become like a sitcom where the characters are so familiar, the flaws and the minuses, it's not like you're falling in love and marrying someone, it's like you're marrying someone after you've been married to them a couple times. And so you go in with your eyes open.
DIONNE: You know, I think the Republican establishment loved some of these same traits in Newt Gingrich as long as he delivered them a majority in the House of Representatives. Now, they're turning on him. And I think a lot of the Republican rank and file look at the Republican establishment and say, hey, the notion that Newt Gingrich is not a conservative, that's absurd. So I think there is some anti-Washington stuff, but it's just rank and file Republicans saying no to the Republican establishment.
NEARY: Well, E.J., I want to ask you about New Hampshire because you seem to see a glimmer of hope there for Jon Huntsman. Really?
DIONNE: Well, I said in the piece - I was up in New Hampshire in Peterborough - I said it's a bankshot, it's a long shot, but here's the scenario. New Hampshire allows independents to cross over and vote in the Republican primary if they want to. Huntsman is well liked among non-Republicans who see him as a reasonable guy. He's actually much more conservative than all the liberals who like him realize. And that's his second possibility, which is if Romney and Gingrich somehow destroy each other or really go at each other, it creates an opening for another candidate.
Is this a long shot? As I said in the column, I wouldn't bet $10,000 on it, but I think it's at least a possibility.
NEARY: And then again this is an anything-can-happen race.
DIONNE: Exactly. No, if you had people cheering a trio of nines out there just a couple of months ago, anything is possible.
BROOKS: Campaigning matters at the end of the day. And if you looked at him in the debate, like all the debates, he's just awkward and he doesn't have crisp messaging. You go up to him in events, as I have in New Hampshire, he doesn't really have a theme. He doesn't have a narrative. I admire the guy, but he's just not a good campaigner. And for all the political scientists want to model everything, being a good campaigner really matters.
NEARY: All right.
DIONNE: And he's been to 119 or 21 events, depending on who you believe in his campaign, and that was just as of earlier this week. So he's campaigned.
BROOKS: He was awkward in all of them.
NEARY: And David, I understand you're holding out hope for Jeb Bush.
BROOKS: Well, I'm not holding out hope, but I do think it's a remote possibility. I do think the Republican Party is not going to nominate Newt Gingrich. If he emerges from the early primaries as the front-runner, someone's going to step in.
NEARY: All right. Well, thanks to both of you, E.J. and David.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
NEARY: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.