'This Week' Transcript: John McCain and Robert Gibbs

PHOTO: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is interviewed on "This Week."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER (voice-over): Good morning. Welcome to "This Week."

Michigan melee.

ROMNEY: If you want a fiscal conservative, you can't vote for Rick Santorum, because he's not.

SANTORUM: It's not about you. It's not about you.

TAPPER: Rick Santorum has the momentum.

ROMNEY: Thank you.

TAPPER: Mitt Romney has the money.

(UNKNOWN): How did Rick Santorum actually vote?

TAPPER: When will order finally come to the Republican race? That question for our exclusive headliner, the man who survived the GOP primary gauntlet four years ago to emerge as his party's nominee, Senator John McCain.

And...

OBAMA: Change will come.

TAPPER: ... is the Republican fighting helping President Obama, despite his struggles? We'll ask top Obama adviser Robert Gibbs.

Then, our powerhouse roundtable takes on all the week's politics. Plus, the Jeremy Lin phenomenon and whether the tribute to Whitney Houston has gone too far, with George Will, Dee Dee Myers, Lou Dobbs, Clarence Page, and Jonathan Karl.

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. It's your voice, your vote. Reporting from the Newseum in Washington, Jake Tapper.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Good morning, everyone. George Stephanopoulos has a well-deserved morning off. We're now just over one week away from the crucial Michigan primary. Michigan is Mitt Romney's home state, where his dad was governor. And both the Romney and Santorum camps consider the contest there to be a potential game-changer in this bitterly fought Republican nomination battle.

To discuss that fight and more, key Romney-backer and the Republican nominee from four years John McCain joined us just a few moments ago from Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Senator, I'm going to get to international relations and foreign policy in a second, but the news this week has been dominated by politics. And, in fact, you've become part of the conversation. I want to play Rick Santorum in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday, talking about Mitt Romney's leadership of the Salt Lake City Olympics.

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SANTORUM: He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake -- John McCain called it potentially the worst boondoggle in earmark history. Does the word "hypocrisy" comes to mind?

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TAPPER: Does the word "hypocrisy" come to mind, asks Senator Santorum. Well, does that word come to mind? Because Senator Santorum is right. He did request that money as head of the Olympics. You did criticize it. And now Mitt Romney is criticizing Rick Santorum for earmark spending. What's your reaction?

MCCAIN: Well, my reaction is that I, of course, oppose earmarks, and I've opposed them of all kinds. All I wanted them to do was go to Congress and go through the normal process of authorizing and then appropriating. I certainly wanted to save the Salt Lake Olympics, as most other Americans did.

Mr. Santorum voted for things like the Bridge to Nowhere, zoos in Philadelphia, and was one of the more blatant defender of earmarks, which my friend, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, says is the gateway drug to corruption. And he engaged in it. He defended it. He was in this K Street Project, which led to corruption, more corruption, and eventually members of Congress ending up in jail. Of course, I opposed an earmark. But if they had gone and authorized it, I would have supported it, because I believe that the Olympics was very important to the United States of America.

TAPPER: You endorsed Mitt Romney, but a friend of your, former Ohio Senator Mike DeWine, who endorsed you in both of your presidential runs, this weekend unendorsed Mitt Romney and endorsed Rick Santorum. DeWine said, quote, "He's just not connecting," about Romney, "I don't know what it is, but I can tell you from real people I'm talking to, it ain't getting any better." Isn't Senator DeWine touching on a real problem for Mitt Romney? Isn't he having problems connecting to voters?

MCCAIN: No, I think it's a very tough campaign, and I understand that. But the fact is that these debates and these kinds of negative campaigns have driven the disapproval ratings of all of the members up. I am still confident that Mitt Romney will succeed. I was declared dead by pundits such as yourself back in 2007 and 2008.

But, look, I respect Mike DeWine's opinion. I am confident that Mitt Romney will succeed in both Michigan and Arizona. But it's tough. And it's not beanbag.

TAPPER: Are you worried at the tenor of the campaign being such that President Obama will have a much easier time being re-elected? I've talked to a lot of Republicans who two or three months ago were very bullish on defeating President Obama and now are very, very worried that, because this race has gotten so nasty -- and, as you suggest, the negative ratings of the candidates have gone so high, he may, in fact, be re-elected.

MCCAIN: I am concerned about that Jake. And I think there's reason to be concerned about it. I've been in very tough campaigns. I don't think I've seen one that was as personal and as characterized by so many attacks as these are. And, frankly, one of the reasons is the super PACs. And why do we have the super PACs? Because the ignorance and naivete of the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United campaign.

We now have a -- have a casino mogul that's, what, up to about $20 million, and a lot of that money comes from his proceeds from his casinos overseas, including China. So I think it has to do with the unlimited money, and I do not believe I've ever seen campaigns characterized overwhelming by negative attacks.

TAPPER: Let's turn now to Afghanistan, where you're sitting right now. The big news is that Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has confirmed that the United States, the Afghan government, are in three-way talks with the Taliban. Are those talks a mistake?

MCCAIN: No, I think it's important to have talks wherever you can, but I also think that it's important to remember that we have to have an outcome on the battlefield that would motivate a successful conclusion to those talks, and there's also the perception here that we are leaving, which then, of course, is a disincentive to successful conclusion of the talks.

I think it's very important that we have a strategic agreement with Afghanistan for a long-term U.S. presence here. I think that's the best way to bring about a peaceful solution, is to make sure that we are here to stay, to support the Afghan government and people, and we will supply that assistance for as long as is necessary.

TAPPER: The reason I ask, sir, is Mitt Romney says there should be absolutely no negotiation with the Taliban, whereas I've heard you say in the past, you make peace with your enemies, and that's who you need to negotiate with. So on this issue, not the withdrawal date -- I understand you guys are in congress on that -- but on this issue of whether or not there should be any negotiating with the Taliban you and Mitt Romney disagree.

MCCAIN: Well, I haven't had a conversation with him about it, but I'm sure that Mitt Romney would like to have peaceful solution. But he has a realistic approach. When the president of the United States keeps withdrawing -- announcing withdrawal dates than as one of the Taliban once said to his captor, an American, said, "You've got the watches, we've got the time."

So by the president declaring withdrawal dates before our military commanders recommend it, and increasing the risk, in their view, lessens the chances for success of any negotiations.

TAPPER: Let's go to neighboring Iran. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this weekend said in an interview that an Israeli military strike on Iran would be, quote, "destabilizing and would not achieve their long-term objectives. I wouldn't suggest sitting here today that we've persuaded the Israelis that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion. We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor. And we also know or we believe we know that the Iranian regime has not decided to make a nuclear weapon."

Do you agree with what the Obama administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are telling the Israelis?

MCCAIN: I think the Israelis face an existential threat when Iran has a nuclear weapon. I agree with the president of the United States, who said such a eventuality of Iranians having undercover weapons is, quote, "unacceptable."

I think the Israelis are pretty good at assessing the threats to their vital national security interests. They are surrounded by countries, some of whom are dedicated to their extinction, and there's no doubt about the Iranian intention concerning the existence of the state of Israel.

So I hoping that working together with the Israelis that sanctions would work, and they have not changed -- deterred the Iranians so far -- that we can bring about a peaceful resolution. But there may come a time where they reach an unacceptable place, which the president of the United States has stated would be an unacceptable situation.

TAPPER: You're heading to Egypt, where the government has many American citizens who are active in democracy work, is not letting them leave the country. You're chairman of one of these groups, the International Republican Institute. If the Egyptian government refuses to release these Americans, should the United States threaten to cut off aid to Egypt?

MCCAIN: Jake, I think this is a very difficult situation. I am going to Egypt as a preplanned trip. I am not a negotiator, but I think it's important that I and the other senators in the delegation explain to the Egyptian leadership -- and, by the way, this is a Mubarak law that they are enforcing. This is not the Muslim Brotherhood we're talking about -- that this is a serious situation, has serious implications for our relationship. But for me to go to the Egyptians now and make threat I think could be nonproductive.

TAPPER: Before you go, Senator, I have to ask you, one of your most memorable campaign ads from 2008 involved you and a sheriff walking along the border, talking about completing the dang fence, and that sheriff over the weekend had to step down from this position in the Romney campaign after being accused of threatening to deport his ex-boyfriend, who was an illegal immigrant. As uncomfortable as this story might make you, I'm wondering if you have any reaction to this. He was in your most memorable campaign ad and was an important supporter of yours.

MCCAIN: Well, of course, Sheriff Babeu is a friend of mine. I do not know the details, except what has been published in the media. And I'm sure there will be a thorough and complete investigation, if there is any allegations of wrongdoing. All I can say is that he also deserves the benefit, as every citizen does, of innocence until proven guilty. But I appreciate the support that he gave me in my campaign and always will.

TAPPER: All right. Senator McCain, thanks so much for joining us. And be safe on your trip.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

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TAPPER: And we turn now to the president's former press secretary, who just last month officially joined the Obama re-election campaign as a top adviser, Robert Gibbs. Welcome back to "This Week."

GIBBS: Thank you, Jake. How are you?

TAPPER: I'm pretty good, thanks. So I want to get your reaction to this comment from Rick Santorum in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend. They're beating up each other, but they're also beating up President Obama quite a bit, and this is what Santorum had to say about the president's, quote, "different theology."

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SANTORUM: This is what the president's agenda is. It's not about you. It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology...

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Pressed by reporters as to what exactly he meant, Santorum said the president is, quote, "imposing his secular values on the church, and I think that's wrong." Your reaction?

GIBBS: Well, look, Jake, I think it is time in our politics in which we get rid of this mindset that if we disagree, we have to disqualify each other, that if we -- not just on political positions, but we question character and faith. It's wrong...

TAPPER: You think he was questioning his faith?

GIBBS: I can't help but think that those remarks are well over the line. It's wrong. It's destructive. It makes it virtually impossible to solve the problems that we all face together as Americans. People are not sitting at home this morning, Jake, thinking we more of this in our politics or our public discourse. It's time to get rid of this. It's time to have a debate on our political positions, but not question each other's character and faith.

TAPPER: Rick Santorum denies that he was dog-whistling about the president's faith, suggesting that the president is anything other than a Christian. You don't necessarily believe that.

GIBBS: Jake, I think that if you make comments like that, you make comments that are well over the line. I think this GOP primary is -- in many cases, Jake, has been a race to the bottom. We have seen nastiness, divisiveness, ugliness, distortions of opponents' records, of the president's records.

You just heard John McCain say it. It's affecting their standing, their own candidates' standing with the American people. We see it in their turnout numbers. Fewer and fewer Republicans are coming out to even participate in the process of nominating somebody to run against President Obama.

But I think, more importantly, Jake, it's just time to get rid of this mindset in our politics that, if we disagree, we have to question character and faith. Those days have long passed in our politics. Our problems and our challenges are far too great. The challenges that we face in the middle class through economic fairness and security is what we should be focusing on. It's what the president is focusing on each and every day.

TAPPER: Let's talk about one of those issues having to do with the economy. Oil is now over $100 a barrel. It's on the front page of the New York Times this morning. "High gas prices give GOP issue to attack Obama." And here's an AP story from this weekend. Quote, "Gasoline prices have never been higher this time of the year. At $3.53 a gallon, prices are already up 25 cents since January 1st, and experts say they could reach a record $4.25 a gallon by late April."

And here is Santorum, again, blaming the president for this.

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SANTORUM: We have a president who, in my opinion, sees that energy consumption in America is a problem, not a good, that we need to have less energy consumption, and one way to do that is to make energy prices higher. His policies have done everything they can to slow down energy production.

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TAPPER: That's the Republican attack. That's what we're going to hear probably for the next few months, if not all the way until November. Your reaction?

GIBBS: Well, look, it's clear that Rick Santorum and none of the Republican candidates saw the president talking in the State of the Union about an all-of-the-above energy policy. Just on Friday, the Department of Interior issued permits that will expand our exploration in the Arctic. The president has increased our fuel efficiency and energy efficiency standards so we do, do -- do use less energy, which will help drive down the price.

Our domestic oil production is at an eight-year high, and our use of foreign oil is at a 16-year low. So we're making process. There are no magic bullets to solve this problem. We're going to have to do all of these things. We're going to have to look for more energy here at home. We're going to have to conserve energy. We're going to have to make the energy we use more efficient. All of those things will help us get ahead of this problem.

TAPPER: The president got something of a political victory this week when the House and Senate came to an agreement on the payroll tax extension, but it's not paid for, the $100 billion, so that payroll tax money will not be paid into the Social Security Trust Fund. One member of the president's own party called this bill "a devil's deal" and went on the say this.

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HARKIN: I'm dismayed that Democrats, including a Democratic president and a Democratic vice president, have proposed this and are willing to sign off on a deal that could begin the unraveling of Social Security.

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TAPPER: That's quite an ad against the president's re-election campaign from Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. Is this the unraveling of Social Security?

GIBBS: No, I strongly disagree with that characterization. This does not in any way threaten the livelihood of Social Security.

TAPPER: A hundred billion dollars is not going into the trust fund.

GIBBS: What it does do is help our economy get stronger at a time in which middle-class families we know continue, Jake, to struggle greatly with the high cost of living these days. And I think it was an important step. And I'm glad that Republicans in Congress accepted the president's position that we can't raise taxes on the middle class right now. It was an important step. It will help continue our economic recovery. And it in no way threatens the livelihood of Social Security.

TAPPER: The president's chief of staff, Jack Lew, came on the show last week and told George Stephanopoulos -- he admitted that the president's budget does not meet the president's pledge from early 2009 to cut the deficit in half. The White House says now that it didn't know then when the president made the pledge that the economy was in such bad shape he wouldn't be able to meet it, but he was continuing to make that pledge as recently as 2011.

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OBAMA: When I took office, I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term. Our budget meets that pledge and puts us on a path to pay for what we spend by the middle of the decade.

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TAPPER: I believe you were there at the time. You guys didn't know?

GIBBS: That was the second day I was gone.

TAPPER: Is that right? Is that...

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: I will -- I won't quibble with the date of whether I was there on the 15th or the 11th. But I will say...

TAPPER: But the White House knew how deep the hole was then.

GIBBS: But, Jake, I don't think anybody had -- on either side of the political spectrum had a real sense of not just how deep this was, but how long this economic recovery would take. And, quite frankly, Jake, we've made some good progress, but it's going to take some more time to get out of that hole.

Let's be clear, though. The president does have a budget that puts in place some substantial budget savings going forward. I think the pledge the president made there, if you extend that probably another year, he'll meet that goal.

The best thing we can do for our budget deficit right now is to get our economy going even faster than it is right now. And I think one of the things that we're going to debate throughout this presidential election is a trillion-dollar driver in our debts and our deficit is extending tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. We're going to have that debate in this race. And if we want to make some serious progress on our budget deficit, then let's not extend tax breaks for people that don't really need them.

TAPPER: Very quickly -- we have about 20 seconds left -- Nancy Pelosi came out and said she supports a plank in the Democratic Party's official platform that would say, quote, "We support the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation with equal respect, responsibilities and protections under the law, including the freedom to marry." I know the president says he's, quote, unquote, "still evolving" on this issue. Will there be a same-sex marriage plank in the Democratic Party platform this summer?

GIBBS: Jake, I don't know the answer to that. And I don't know -- I haven't talked to the president at all recently on this issue.

I think we all look to and want to live in a world where, if you're applying for a job or doing anything, you're not judged on your sexual orientation. You shouldn't be. And I think living in a society where that doesn't happen is a society we all want to live.

TAPPER: Well, Robert Gibbs, thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

GIBBS: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: We'll see you again.

Up next, our powerhouse roundtable weighs in on all the week's politics. Plus, the Whitney Houston memorial controversy. Has it been too much? And the young athlete who came out of nowhere to capture the nation's attention.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNKNOWN): Do you have Linsanity?

(UNKNOWN): Hey, you better lock me up. I mean, I am criminally Linsane.

(UNKNOWN): My feelings are Lintense.

(UNKNOWN): It's Lindescribable. I mean, I am literally Lin love with this Jeremy Lim.

COLBERT: You know things are rough when a Harvard economics grad has an easier time getting a job as an NBA point guard than a Wall Street bond trader.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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ROMNEY: Little history. I was born and raised here. I love this state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height. I like -- I like seeing the -- I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. Just something very special here. The great lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that -- that dot the -- the parts of Michigan.

I love cars. I don't know. I mean, I grew up totally in love with cars. I used to be in the '50s and '60s, if you showed me one square foot of almost any part of a car, I could tell you what brand it was, the model and so forth. Now, with all the Japanese cars, I'm not quite so good at it, but I still know the American cars pretty well and drive a Mustang. I love cars. I love American cars. And long may they rule the world, let me tell you. I want to do well.

(APPLAUSE)

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TAPPER: That was Mitt Romney waxing poetic on Thursday about his love for the Wolverine State. And, of course, all eyes are on Michigan this week, as it takes center stage in the presidential race. And here to discuss that and more, I am joined as always by George Will, former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Lou Dobbs of FOX Business Network, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, and my friend and ABC News colleague Jonathan Karl. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. Will, is it possible that Mr. Romney is not going to win the state that he grew up in, the one his dad was governor of?

WILL: The home of Vernor's Ginger Ale and all that stuff that (inaudible) yes, I think it is.

TAPPER: And those trees that are the right height.

WILL: Begin with the fact that the Midwest probably begins on the western slope of the Alleghenies, which makes Pittsburgh and Santorum part of the Midwest. He's won Michigan -- Iowa. He's won Missouri. He's won Minnesota. So he's run strongly in the Midwest.

Furthermore, our states are often several states. There's -- people say of Pennsylvania, there's Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Alabama in the middle. They say in Missouri, you live either where it's Missouri or "Missour-ah." And Michigan has the Detroit metropolitan area, where Romney in 2008 did very well and should do well again. Then there's the rest of it. And over in the west, particularly, you have the Dutch Calvinists in Kalamazoo and Holland and Muskegon and places like that, Grand Rapids. Out there, the social conservatives are strong. I would expect Santorum to carry non-metro Detroit. The question is, by how much?

TAPPER: Dee Dee, what are you seeing when you look at the Michigan race?

MYERS: Well, I think it's an open question whether Romney is going to win the state where he was born and where he grew up and where he loves the trees. And -- but one of the things that strikes me, I think to George's point, is that there is a lot of social conservatism in the state, and so you have a Republican primary being fought on GOP wedge issues.

While the president is off at Boeing on Friday talking about American manufacturing, while we're seeing increases in employment in the country, we're seeing some green shoots in the economy, he's looking forward. He's passing, you know, the extension of the payroll tax cuts. And Republicans are talking about the president's theology. They're talking about whether a fetus is a person. They're sort of mired -- they're attacking each other personally and talking about earmarks.

And I think, as this campaign season goes on, the extended primary season is not really working that well for any of the Republican candidates. And you see that in the lack of enthusiasm measured in a lot of ways, including turnout in the last several states, where we've seen not the record numbers we saw in the 2008 contested primary, but you know, a very, very kind, "Jeez, this isn't that great," kind of reaction.

TAPPER: Lou, go ahead.

DOBBS: Well, one of the tests, it seems here, will be, which is the more powerful message? That is, to question the president's theology, his beliefs are whether it is to align yourself very closely and carefully with the trees and their height, and the lakes, and the people of Michigan. I think it's a very powerful message that Romney is offering, and it's nice to hear those kinds of positives. They may be somewhat hackneyed. They may be unnecessary. They would be a news headline if he said the inverse, admittedly.

TAPPER: "I hate the trees."

DOBBS: "I hate the trees. They're the wrong height."

MYERS: "They're the wrong height."

DOBBS: But, truthfully, I think this is a good thing for the Republicans. And I think this is -- you know, we're early days, if ever there were, in a primary process, and the national media is clacking about this is unresolved. I say, great, we're supposed to be building something of a national consensus in this primary process. And I'm, frankly, elated with it. The candidates may not be, but I am.

TAPPER: Clarence, I want to play for you some of the ads that our friends in Michigan are hearing as they turn on their televisions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Michigan's been my home, and this is personal.

(UNKNOWN): Who has the best chance to beat Obama? Rick Santorum.

(UNKNOWN): Santorum was voting for billions in waste, including the Bridge to Nowhere.

(UNKNOWN): Romney's trying to hide from his big government Romneycare and his support for job-killing cap-and-trade.

(UNKNOWN): Rick Santorum, big spender, Washington insider.

(UNKNOWN): Mitt Romney's ugly attacks are going to backfire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: How important are these ads, do you think, Clarence?

PAGE: I think these ads will be very important, are very important, and will be. And I think right now that's Mitt Romney's biggest hope, because we see he has not been able to get his verbal message together. He still sounds rather in disarray when talking -- just trying to tell everybody about how much he loves Michigan. It's a remarkable thing.

And, Lou, you did a great job of putting a good, optimistic spin on the disarray in the Republican Party right now.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

DOBBS: ... I don't spin it (inaudible) that's your bailiwick (inaudible)

PAGE: Couldn't have it. But, no, this will be good for the party in the long run. It's kind of like a post-Goldwater reassessment back in the '60s, that they're trying to figure out what their real message and core theme is. But for right now, I still haven't written off Romney in Michigan. I think he's got the money to put the attack ads on the air. I think he needs to hammer away at a theme we just saw in a Santorum ad, which is Romney can do a better job of beating Obama. And that's what Republicans are mainly motivated by. That's the one thing that unites the party these days is beating Obama.

KARL: I mean, if there was ever a must-win state for Mitt Romney, it's Michigan. The central argument of his candidacy is that he is the candidate who can beat Barack Obama, he is the one that is electable. If you can't convince Republicans in your home state to vote for you, how are you going to convince anybody else?

TAPPER: And, Jon, you had a fascinating conversation with a Republican senator who shall rename nameless about the Republican race. Tell us about this.

KARL: Yeah, this is a prominent Republican senator, somebody we all know well at this table, who has not endorsed anybody, who told me that if Romney cannot win in Michigan, that he firmly believes that the party has to find another candidate. And this candidate, this senator, by the way, doesn't think that Santorum is the answer and certainly doesn't think Newt Gingrich is the answer, and, you know, brings us back to this perpetual dream of a contested primary.

And you even have prominent Republicans in this town looking out at the states that still have places where you can file to be on the ballot. There are 10 left, and some big ones, including California.

Look, this is a fantasy. But the point is that top Republicans are saying that if Romney can't win Michigan, he is so damaged that even if he could then somehow go on and win the nomination, he's not going to be a guy who can win in the general.

WILL: And Michigan will be another test, as we test in various places, the utility of money. We generally assume that money equals X outcome. Not always. Meg Whitman spent, what, $130 million and did not become governor of California. When the electorate makes up its mind about someone, no amount of money can drive that decision.

TAPPER: Lou, do you think that the attacks that Romney is waging -- are waging against Santorum are effective? He's going after him for voting to raise the debt ceiling, for voting for earmarks.

DOBBS: I think at the margin they're effective. I think negative ads have been so overwhelming a part of this campaign that they're starting with usage to be less and less effective. I think that the country right now is looking for inspiration, an aspirational leader here would be welcome, and that could be the president, it could be one of the Republicans seeking to replace him. Whomever amongst these learns that, what I consider to be an absolute, obvious truth and executes a strategy accordingly, I think has a real good chance of winning the presidency or re-electing -- getting this president re-elected.

TAPPER: And one of the -- one of the things that goes on in campaigns, of course, is you have supporters, you have surrogates, and sometimes they go a little bit off message. Rick Santorum has a support named Foster Friess. He went on Andrea Mitchell's show the other day. Here is Foster Friess and Rick Santorum being asked to account for his comments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRIESS: And this contraceptive thing, my gosh, it's such inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly.

SANTORUM: This is the same "gotcha" politics that you get from the media. And I'm just not going to play that game. I'm not responsible for any comment that anybody who supports me make, and my record stands for itself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Here we are, days later, weeks later after this contraception thing, and they're still -- it's still being discussed. Now, maybe it's the media that's discussing it, but you think this a winning issue for Democrats?

MYERS: I do think it's a winning issue for Democrats. I mean...

KARL: Who knew? Contraception is the central issue of the Democratic campaign.

MYERS: Exactly. And it's not just contraception. It's somehow the Republicans being on the "Mad Men" side of the argument, I mean, taking it back, you know, 50 years to a time when that wasn't necessarily the case. And I think that, if you doubt that, if you look at what happened over the last week, where there's been a lot of energy around this issue, and on Thursday we saw the House Oversight Committee, with a panel of all men, talking about contraception and what its role should be. And there was a -- you know, a furious reaction by women. All the women's groups are raising a ton of money on this. And now groups like Emily's List are actually on the air with an ad, reminding people that this is the perspective of a lot of people in the GOP and it is not going to work well for them.

TAPPER: Lou, you disagree?

DOBBS: I do disagree. First of all, I hadn't heard that -- that -- if you want to call it a joke, since I was in junior high school. It hasn't improved with age.

(LAUGHTER)

The fact is, would this render a movie? Would it give that an R rating if that joke were included in it? Is there anything that was said by Foster Friess that is worse than anything that our children will see in primetime television in this country? Why are -- where have we -- I mean, we're sort of an orthodoxy...

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS: Lou, it's not -- it's not -- it's not the language. It's the...

DOBBS: ... that is seeking purity by identifying the vulgarity of others.

MYERS: It's not about the vulgarity. It's about the mindset.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS: It's about a mindset that suggests that somehow that's an acceptable point of view. And the reason it's damaging to Santorum is not because he's accountable or responsible for everything one of his supporters says, but because it gets a little too close to what people think he actually believes.

TAPPER: Clarence?

PAGE: It's also about being out of touch. You know, Lou, you're right. If we told that joke, it wouldn't matter, because we're not running for office, but Foster Friess is in the middle of the Santorum campaign right now, and we are in a political campaign. And if he -- if he has observed any campaign for the last 30 years, he knows that this kind of a comment by a supporter can get the candidate into trouble. And I'm sure that was not his intent, but he walked right into it, like Reverend Wright.

DOBBS: Don't you think it takes a lot of hard work on the part of all of us in the national media to make that into what it has become? I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: Like it or hate it, Democrat or Republican, this kind of comment reflects badly on the candidate in a campaign...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Rick Santorum has a problem here, which is he cannot be the niche candidate of the far-right social conservatives. That might work in Iowa. You know, he gets the support of the Family Leader. He can -- he can work it in the Iowa caucuses.

But his appeal right now -- and the reason why you're seeing him surging in the polls, in Michigan, and in Ohio, in several other states, is that he comes across as the regular guy. He's the guy that connects. He's the guy that can connect to blue-collar Republicans. He is not surging because he is Rick Santorum, social conservative, niche candidate. This is not a good thing for him to be talking about.

WILL: He also comes across as a happy candidate, except when he's very gloomy.

KARL: Except when he's angry.

WILL: Except when he says -- I mean, he picks up on the news this week that more than half the children born to women in this country of all ethnicities and races under 30 are born out of wedlock. Now, we know the social pathologies that flow from this. He's right to talk about it. But when he does, he begins to depict an America where, as he said in one of his speeches, you'll be afraid to go out of doors.

TAPPER: And I think one of the issues here with the contraception debate, which I'm just framing it as -- by calling it the contraception debate, and not calling it the religious liberty debate, is the framing and whether or not it becomes a debate about religious liberty and what religious groups have to do, or whether or not this is about contraception.

And I wonder, George, if you're concerned that Rick Santorum who, in some cases, you know, can be seen as the Republican frontrunner, if he falls into the trap of making this about contraception, which is not necessarily a winning issue for Republicans, as opposed to making it a debate about religious liberty.

WILL: There is no contraceptive debate in the sense that no one running for president wants to ban contraception. No one.

PAGE: Santorum does.

WILL: No, he does not.

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: It's about being in favor of public financing of contraception.

PAGE: In his heart of hearts, he has said he doesn't like contraception and...

KARL: Well, he doesn't want to ban...

(CROSSTALK)

DOBBS: ... clearly that he personally and individually believes that it is wrong.

(UNKNOWN): Right.

DOBBS: But in public policy choices, he's always come down on the side of making it possible for everyone else.

MYERS: But one of the things he says is that he thinks it's bad for the country and that he's counseling women that they ought not to use it. And you know what? Most women don't want Rick Santorum's advice about whether or not they should use birth control. And it just hearkens back to a time which we thought was in the past, but not so much now, that people -- like who had very little to do with women's lives -- are making decisions about their health.

This is an issue around women's health. It is part of a -- of the president's health care plan that says that preventive health services should be available and paid for, for women. This is something women strongly support. And, by the way, the president won with huge margins in the women's vote, and this is something that's going to help him do that again. He won 10 million more votes from women than from men, 10 million more, and 70 percent of unmarried women voted for him, 29 percent voted for McCain.

DOBBS: He's running behind now from his 2008 performance in polling of women.

MYERS: And this is going to help?

DOBBS: He's doing the same thing dramatically among independents. These are -- these are choices that are going to be made individually by voters. And it's awfully nice of the national media and the Democratic Party to help everyone understand the dangers of Rick Santorum. But the Republican primary process will make that evaluation, irrespective of our assistance, genuine or manufactured.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: ... will be in November.

TAPPER: And let's move on to something having to do with economic matters and the general election, which is the president both introduced a budget in the last week and also got something of a victory with the payroll tax cut extension. You're not impressed with the budget, also, much.

DOBBS: And I join a very large majority in that response. There is nothing about this budget that makes it meaningful. There is not a single element of it that will be voted upon in the Senate. The Senate majority leader, the principal ally of this president on Capitol Hill, has said there will be no vote. So what is the point of it? People can describe it as a political document, a campaign document. It is nothing, period.

TAPPER: Jon, you cover Capitol Hill for us. Why has the Senate not voted on a budget in more than a thousand days. Why?

KARL: It is pretty astounding. And it's become such a talking point for the Republicans that people have gotten kind of sick of bringing it up, because every day they come out and say, you know, day 1,021, no Democratic budget. But it is astounding that since, you know, President Obama was sworn in, we haven't seen the Democrats actually put forth their own...

TAPPER: And why?

KARL: ... you know, governing document. Difficult choices. Nobody wants to make choices. Look, we saw it with the payroll tax deal, Jake. I mean, look at this. We finally -- hooray, we've got a bipartisan agreement. What do we do? By completely ignoring all the difficult choices that need to be made, by just saying we're going to give away -- Tom Harkin called it the devil's deal, you talked about with Gibbs.

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: I don't know if it was the devil's deal, but it completely avoided difficult choices, $100 billion taken right out of Social Security, given away in the form of a payroll tax cut, no effort to do anything in the way of any kind of spending cuts.

PAGE: Well, you're not going to have difficult choices during economic hard times. The best time would have been like back in the '90s when you had budget surpluses, but when...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: But when you've got surpluses going on, everybody wants to enjoy the surplus. And the problem is that these are long-range choices, and you're right, in terms of the culture of Washington is not geared toward long-range problems. It's geared toward immediate problems. Our immediate problem is unemployment, and that's why the payroll tax cut needs to be extended.

TAPPER: George...

WILL: Treasury Secretary Geithner rather delicately said we face some demographic challenges. Yes. Today, as happened on Saturday and as will happen tomorrow, Monday, 10,000 more Americans, retiring baby boomers, become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. This is demographically driven. It is utterly predictable. And no one wants to talk about how much we're going to subsidize the last 20 years of Americans' lives, no matter how healthy, no matter how wealthy they are. And that's the subject everyone runs from. You say they don't do it in hard times. In good times, they say, well, times are good and the revenues are coming and we don't need to. So there's never a time to do this.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But, Dee Dee, you think this was a good week for the president, in terms of his economic message?

MYERS: I do. I think that it's sort of the third act in the economic play. First, we saw the president's jobs bill proposal. Then we had the State of the Union and we had the budget. And he's on a consistent theme, which is we're going to build an economy that's built to that that will make sure that people who work hard and play by the rules have the opportunity to succeed. It's opportunity and responsibility. Where have we heard that before?

WILL: And what is the antecedent of the pronoun "we"? "We are going to build this"? It's the government. That's his constant message, is we in Washington know best, we know how much manufacturing there ought to be, we know how much of this there ought to be, we're going to pick the winners and losers. Their record at this is appalling.

MYERS: I think it's different than that, actually, George, you'll be shocked to know. I think it's saying that, you know what, there are some inequities built into the system. Why is it that the rich keep getting richer? The well-to-do have seen their income and their wealth grow by unprecedented amounts.

There's only a couple explanations for that. Either the rich people are really a lot smarter than the rest of us -- and I don't think any of us at that table would stipulate...

TAPPER: Lou might.

MYERS: ... or there might be something in the rules that's rigged and the government actually can do something about that, to try to level the playing field so that ordinary folks can get ahead again. One of the reasons we're seeing the reactions that we're seeing in the country is because people feel like the rules are rigged, the playing field is no longer level, and if you work hard and you play by the rules, you can no longer be sure that you're going to do well.

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Well, what do we do about the fact that we have a budget -- if you look at the president's budget, that within five years you're going to see us spending more on interest on the national debt than we're spending on Medicare? I mean, it's absolutely unsustainable, and there is nobody here that is seriously talking about...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I want to -- we're not going to solve the budget woes here today, unfortunately. I do want to bring on to a couple other matters of interest in popular culture. One of them has to do with the fact that Whitney Houston was laid to rest this weekend in New Jersey. And there's been a big debate about whether or not the celebration of her life was too much, given that the flags were put at half-staff in New Jersey.

I want to read this quote from a woman I know, Vanessa Adelson. He's a Gold Star mother. Her son, Specialist Steven Mace, was killed at Combat Output Keating in Afghanistan in 2009. She wrote, "America has a flag code that governs the use and care of the United States flag. Following the code preserves the integrity of the nation in mourning, distinction, and the symbolic value of that honor. While Whitney Houston had a public-inspiring talent, she gave up that gift by the conduct of her personal life. She in no way is someone worthy of being honored by a nation in mourning. The self-inflicted tragedy of her personal life should only be viewed as an example of how an American should not live their life."

On the other hand, here is Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIE: I'm disturbed by people who believe, that because her ultimate demise -- and we don't know what is the cause of her death yet -- but because of her history of substance abuse that somehow she's forfeited the good things that she did in her life. I just reject that on a human level.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Clarence, you don't think that the Whitney Houston funeral over the flags being put at half-mast should be another front in the culture wars.

PAGE: No, I don't. And, first of all, the flag is a strong part of American culture. I think people put more meaning in the flag in this country than most.

At the same time, I saw -- heard a similar argument when Elvis died. There were people said that, no, we're going too far in honoring a guy who died under drug-related circumstances. The fact is, those are complicated questions about somebody who we know had a drug problem. Whitney Houston had that problem. But I don't think that should overshadow good things she did anymore than Billie Holiday's problems should overshadow hers. I think the governor's got the right idea there in New Jersey.

TAPPER: You're a New Jerseyite. You want to weigh in?

DOBBS: You bet. I think Governor Christie had it exactly right. And to focus on that flag being at half-staff for Whitney Houston, let people celebrate her life and her contributions as they will, but I also agree with that mother who lost her son in 2009. It's shameless that another person responsible for a government in the tri-state area, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would not permit a parade for our returning servicemembers from Iraq. We've got to find proportion, and we've got to find consistency, and we've got to understand that those we honor do reflect on us.

TAPPER: And I should -- his name is Stephan Mays, not Steven Mays. I misplaced that, just to honor him fully.

Let's bring on one more topic, and that is a little more happy topic, and that is Jeremy Lin, who has -- we have one minute for this, so a quick go-around. Your thoughts. Do you have Linsanity? You're a baseball fan, but do you have Linsanity?

WILL: No, but it's great to see a child of Asian immigrants excelling at the most pure American sport. It was invented in December 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts. It's nice to see Harvard produce someone who's not a net subtraction from the public good. And I would also note -- I would also note that the last time the Knicks won the NBA Championship, they had a Princetonian in their starting five, Bill Bradley.

TAPPER: That was unnecessary. We have 30 seconds. I want to remind people that Jeremy Lin and the Knicks will host the Dallas Mavericks today at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, 10:00 a.m. Pacific here on ABC. Your thoughts on Linsanity?

MYERS: I think it's fantastic. He's not only elevated his game, he's elevated the team's game. He's ultimately a team player. And I think he's overcome so much to get where he is, everybody's rooting for him.

TAPPER: Ten seconds? You're a Knicks fan.

DOBBS: Rick Reilly, he said it best. This is like a mule winning the Kentucky Derby, being from Harvard.

TAPPER: All right, thanks. That's all the time we have. We'll have more in the green room.

Coming up, man's best friend taking center stage in the presidential race. John Berman explains.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: Well, I just -- you know, I'd rather not have been in a kennel all the way to Canada. Personally it doesn't strike me as a very good thing to have done. But that's just my personal bias, you know.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: The presidential race often moves at hyper-speed, with today's front-page news forgotten by tomorrow. But there is one story that just won't go away for Mitt Romney, as John Berman observes in our "Close-up" this week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): This campaign has gone to the dogs, as Joe Biden would say...

BIDEN: Literally.

BERMAN: Yes, literally, the dogs. Michelle Obama was showing off Bo to tourists at the White House, as Mitt Romney was trying to keep this race from becoming "Vote 2012, When Animals Attack."

BIDEN: Literally.

BERMAN: Yes, literally. One of the Democrats' favorite attacks on Romney centers on an Irish setter that Romney owned in the 1980s. On a family road trip, Romney put the dog in a crate, then tied it to the roof of a car, before driving full speed to Canada, where upon the dog relieved in fear on the roof.

ROMNEY: We love the dog. It was where he was comfortable.

BERMAN: It was mocked in this video from MoveOn.org, protested outside the Westminster Dog Show. Even senior Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted this photo, writing, "How loving dog-owners transport their dogs."

With all the real concerns out there, it may seem awfully trivial, so why then are they doing it? Well, pets are political.

(UNKNOWN): Presidents have always had their photographs taken with their animals. They want to show the American people that they are normal people, like you and I.

BERMAN: Yes, it was Harry Truman who said, if you need a friend in the White House, get a dog. Well, in these hyper-political days, when nothing is out of bounds, if a candidate gets a dog, he better make sure he doesn't leak.

BIDEN: Literally.

BERMAN: That's my "Close-up" on this week. John Berman, ABC News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Ruff. I'll be back to answer some of the questions you had for this week, but, first, we remember and honor our fellow Americans who serve and sacrifice.

This week, the Pentagon released the names of three servicemembers killed in Afghanistan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Finally today, all week you've been tweeting and Facebooking us your questions at #askgeorge. And since George is not here this week, I'll take on a few of your questions.

This is your voice this week. First, from Tommy M., is the money disparity between the Romney and Santorum campaigns really that significant at the end of the day?

Yes, Tommy, there's actually an enormous difference. Last year, Romney raised $57 million, while Santorum took in only $2 million. And that's let Romney and his super PAC allies outspend Santorum 12 to 1 on television ads.

So how is Santorum doing it? Shush Walshe, our reporter who's been traveling with the campaign for months, says, quote, "I cannot emphasize enough how frugal they are. Santorum has no campaign headquarters or paid pollsters, and volunteers drive him to events."

Finally, Dianne asked, Jake, what's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Well, in high school, I worked at Baskin-Robbins in Ardmour, Pennsylvania, and I will tell you the best flavor of ice cream -- not just my favorite, the best -- is mint chocolate chip.

More questions next week. Send them in at #askgeorge on Facebook or any time on abcnews.com and Yahoo. That's all for us today. "World News" with David Muir has the latest headlines tonight. And check out otusnews.com all week long for the latest from our political team.

Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. George Stephanopoulos will see you back here next week.

END

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