'This Week' Transcript: Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann

PHOTO: Ron Paul

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER (voice-over): This week, all eyes on Iowa.

ROMNEY: It's pretty warm in the political kitchen.

TAPPER: Voters get their turn to speak in just two days. But in the final hour, some candidates rise...

SANTORUM: We're growing by leaps and bounds.

TAPPER: ... while others fall.

GINGRICH: I'm very satisfied with where we are.

TAPPER: Our headliners today, the man who may win on Tuesday, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

BACHMANN: Ron Paul would be dangerous as a president of the United States.

TAPPER: ... and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Iowa once seemed hers to lose. Now she's struggling to hang on.

Complete caucus coverage today, including reporters on the ground in the Hawkeye state, and insider perspective from Iowa's governor, Terry Branstad, and predictions from our powerhouse roundtable.

ANNOUNCER: From the Newseum in Washington, "This Week" starts now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Good morning, and happy new year. I am Jake Tapper. We have lots to get to today.

But first, that brand-new poll from the Des Moines Register showing Mitt Romney and Ron Paul essentially tied in Iowa, Romney with 24 percent, Paul within the margin of error at 22 percent, and a last- minute surge for Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator rockets out of the single digits into third place with 15 percent. The story behind the numbers tells us Santorum has got the big mo.

The poll was taken over four days. And in the last two of those days, Santorum pulled ahead of Paul within a hair's breath of Romney. It's a trend to watch in the final hours of this hard-fought campaign.

Another key number, 41 percent of those polled say they still could change their minds. That's a glimmer of hope for the rest of the pack. Newt Gingrich, falling hard to 12 percent; Rick Perry, right behind him with 11 percent; and Michele Bachmann bringing up the rear with 7 percent.

So yet another twist in this race, and the dramatic turn of fortune for Gingrich is particularly remarkable. Just one month ago, he was on top in Iowa with 25 percent, but as our man Jon Karl tells us in our Sunday feature, it's a long way down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL (voice-over): It was the week Newt Gingrich would like to forget. Think about it. He couldn't even get on the ballot in Virginia, and that's where he lives. So when the Virginia primary rolls around, Gingrich won't be able to vote for Gingrich.

He said it was like Pearl Harbor. Mitt Romney suggested Lucille Ball is a better analogy.

ROMNEY: It's more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.

KARL: And midweek, Gingrich proved he could make chocolate just fine.

GINGRICH: Here I am in the chocolate factory.

KARL: Polls this week showed Gingrich in a freefall. One put him in fourth place, another in fifth. Gingrich has been hammered by negative ads...

(UNKNOWN): Newt has more baggage than the airlines.

KARL: ... and told us he hasn't quite figured out how to respond yet.

(on-screen): Forty-five percent of all ads in the state of Iowa have been negative ads against you.

GINGRICH: About me, right. I am committed to running a positive campaign. Politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business, and I think it's disgusting, and I think it's dishonest. And I think the people who are running the ads know they're dishonest. And I think a person who will do that to try to get to be president offers you no hope that they'll be any good as president.

KARL (voice-over): We asked Rick Perry about that. He says he has no regrets for the negative ads he's run against Gingrich.

PERRY: We've just been telling the truth about their records. It's not like they played powder-puff with me.

KARL: With Newt's collapse, look who's rising. Until this week, Rick Santorum barely registered in the polls and couldn't seem to buy a crowd. Now Santorum may be the hottest candidate in Iowa.

SANTORUM: How are you?

KARL (on-screen): I mean, you (OFF-MIKE) handful of people, and all of a sudden you've got...

SANTORUM: It doesn't really -- to be honest with us, it doesn't feel really that much different. It really doesn't. I mean, I'm still doing what I'm doing.

KARL (voice-over): Michele Bachmann had an even worse week than Gingrich. Way down at the bottom of the polls, she ends up going on the attack against her own Iowa co-chairman who jumped ship to support Ron Paul.

BACHMANN: He told me that he was offered money, he was offered a lot of money by the Ron Paul campaign.

KARL: And it was the week that ended in tears for Newt Gingrich, when at a town hall meeting of Iowa moms, he was asked by Republican pollster Frank Luntz about his mom, who suffered from depression.

GINGRICH: You know, I mean, but dealing with, you know, the real problems of real people in my family...

KARL: And that brings us to trending. Romney, up. The conservative anti-Romney vote is divided, and he's smelling victory. Newt Gingrich, down, but he's been there before. Up, Rick Santorum. Nobody's rising faster in Iowa. Rick Perry, up. He's picking up Gingrich defectors and still spending lots of cash. Up, Kelly Clarkson. She endorses Ron Paul and watches her CD sales go up 200 percent. Down, the Ames straw poll. Remember when Bachmann won? Now she's hoping to avoid a last-place finish.

For this New Year's edition of "This Week in Politics," I'm Jonathan Karl. Jake?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Thank you to Jon Karl.

TAPPER: Now let's turn to Congressman Ron Paul. Many political observers say he's on track to win in Iowa, but today he's back home in Texas. Congressman Paul, welcome, and happy new year.

PAUL: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

TAPPER: So your rivals have really started to unload on you in the home stretch, given your prominent perch in the polls. Newt Gingrich says your views are, quote, "totally out of the mainstream of every decent American." Jon Huntsman has a web ad calling you unelectable, citing a decade worth of newsletters published under your name containing bigoted statements against minorities. And even the Des Moines Register poll that shows you essentially tied for first with Mitt Romney says that you are leading the pack in terms of who is least electable in a general election.

This is a real area of vulnerability for you. How do you convince Republican voters that you are, in fact, electable against President Obama?

PAUL: Well, that whole thing is a contradiction in terms. If I'm leading in the polls, that means I'm electable. I've been elected 12 times in Texas, when people get to know me. We're doing well in the polls. Our crowds are getting bigger. And the people who are complaining are the ones who are way down in the polls, so they don't have a whole lot of credibility about my electability.

But, indeed, nobody can prove anything until we have a real election. And we're going to have a real caucus vote, straw vote on Tuesday night. That's going to tell us a whole lot. And as a matter of fact, our campaign feels pretty good about how things are going.

TAPPER: But certainly, Congressman, you would concede that -- that some of your views, some of the principles you hold in terms of drug legalization, or in terms of -- I don't -- I know you wouldn't call it isolationist, but a non-interventionalist policy in the world, these are views that are not shared by a majority of Americans. And I think the concern among Republicans is, once they are better known, that would hurt you.

PAUL: Well, see, I think that's where the contradiction is. Quite frankly, I don't believe that statistic, because I think the majority are with me. What percent want to come out of Afghanistan? It's like 75 percent, 80 percent. How did George Bush win in the year 2000? He talked about a humble foreign policy, non-intervention, no nation-building, no policing of the world. I mean, Obama was seen as the peace candidate just three years ago.

So I would say the American people are with me more now than ever before. They're with me on cutting spending. Nobody else is proposing cutting spending. I'm cutting -- I want to cut $1 trillion out of the budget. And this support -- gets support from all the Republicans on this.

And I would say that it remains to be seen, but I feel very comfortable with the growing number of people that come out to our rallies and the enthusiasm -- I'll tell you what, I think it's -- it's a mistake if people want to write me off and say that I am not with the -- with the people. As a matter of fact, it's so appealing that we get a lot of independents and a lot of Democrats coming to our rally, and that's what you need in order to win an election.

So I'm pretty optimistic about what's going on. And, of course, I've always been optimistic about the message of liberty and the Constitution, limited government. And I think it's catching on. I think the people have come around to believing that the government fails in their efforts to do good. They want to be a good policeman of the world. They want to provide goods and houses for everybody, and look at what happened to the housing bubble, and look at the prolongation of these wars overseas. So people are looking now more carefully at a constitutional approach to government.

TAPPER: Well, you've proposed ending Social Security and Medicaid. That's an issue I think that a lot of Republicans would be concerned about as a -- as a platform for a nominee. And just to dig a little deeper on that, you've said that seniors and the poor could receive care from charity hospitals that the -- under the Paul administration you would help build these charity hospitals.

But we've called a number of these charity hospitals that exist already, and we've spoken to them. They say they're already overwhelmed and that your proposal doesn't square with the world as it is and charity hospitals as they actually exist. So wouldn't that proposal theoretically put lives at risk, the lives of seniors and the poor?

PAUL: Well -- well, you know, you're comparing what we have today, which is a consequence of 40-some years of government. And I practiced medicine when hospitals did take care of people, and it was quite different, and medical care was -- was very, very cheap.

But I -- I just -- I just think that this -- this whole idea that the government has to take care of everybody doesn't -- doesn't really work. I mean, they try to give us housing and all these things. So it isn't -- it isn't very successful.

And I'm arguing the case that there's a better way of doing it. As a matter of fact, this -- your introduction about my wanting to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid, as a matter of fact, if you look carefully at what I've been saying, I'm the only one that has a way of -- of preserving it in a transitional period.

Yeah, technically these programs aren't constitutional, but at every speech, I talk about a transition. I want to cut $1 trillion, but I have priorities. I want to cut from overseas. I want to stop these wars. I want to get rid of several departments. I want to go back to 2006 budgeting.

At the same time, I say the priorities that I would protect -- Medicare, Social Security, health care for the children -- and the only way you can work out a transition is cutting spending. Otherwise, we're going to continue to erode the purchasing power of the dollar. And the people who are getting these -- these Social Security checks won't have any value. They already know the value of their check is going down.

So, as a matter of fact, I have a much more attractive position now. I have a way of at least not throwing people out in the street. So people who need something that we've conditioned them over decades, I say those are priorities. I say take care of the people here at home before we continue to pretend we can police the world and go on with these long-lasting, undeclared, unwinnable wars. That's where we can save the money, by bringing our troops home.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman, we have a lot of issues to discuss and only a few more minutes left. I do want to ask you about those newsletters published under your name in the '80s and '90s. In the '90s, you defended them. In 2001, you said you did not write them. You now say you did not write them, you did not read them, and you disavow them.

So just if you could give a straight answer on this, who wrote these newsletters? And do you still associate with these people?

PAUL: OK, I -- well, I think your -- your assessment there is mixed up, because the reporting has been bad. I did not -- I wrote a lot of part of the letter. And I've never said I didn't. I wrote some of the -- you know, the economic parts.

I was not the editor. I was the publisher. And there were some very bad sentences put in. I did not write those. I did not review them.

TAPPER: Who wrote them?

PAUL: And that is an error on my part. I condemned -- I condemned them. I don't know exactly who wrote them. It's -- you know, I had eight or nine people working for me back then. And a lot of people wrote a lot of different things. So I've condemned them and -- and did not write them. And I've said this quite a few times.

So I just don't think that that in itself is going to have long legs, because people who know me know exactly what my thoughts are. People know everything about that in my district. It's -- it's never been, you know, a big issue at all.

And most importantly, on the issue of race relations, I'm the one that really addresses it. When we look at the drug war and the imprisonments, the court systems, the death penalty, the imbalance on the suffering of the minorities in our military, whether we have a draft or no draft. So I think the court system is very, very biased, whether -- whether it's the issuance of the death penalty -- if you look at it, it is unbiased (ph). I'm the only one who's talking about that, so I'm the true civil libertarian when it comes to this.

And I think that people ought to, you know, look at my position there, rather than dwelling on eight sentences that I didn't write and didn't authorize and have been, you know, apologetic about, because it shouldn't have been there and it was terrible stuff.

TAPPER: Well, I think it's more than eight sentences, but -- but moving on, one of your former close aides recently said that you, quote, "engaged in conspiracy theories, including perhaps the 9/11 attacks were coordinated with the CIA, and that the Bush administration might have known about the attacks ahead of time." So have you ever expressed in front of anyone...

PAUL: Now, wait, wait, wait, wait. Don't -- don't go any further on that. That's complete nonsense.

TAPPER: It's nonsense?

PAUL: Just stop that.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Not true?

PAUL: Yeah, no. I did not -- I never bought into that stuff. I never talked about it.

TAPPER: OK.

PAUL: About the conspiracy of Bush -- of Bush knowing about this? No, no, come on. Come on. Let's be reasonable.

TAPPER: OK.

PAUL: That's just off-the-wall.

TAPPER: And then lastly, on the newsletters, I just want to ask this. You published a for-profit newsletter under your own name for decades, didn't know it included extremely offensive statements. Assuming what you're saying is 100 percent true, you did not see these sentences, doesn't this call into question your management style?

PAUL: Well, yeah, I think so. But nobody -- I don't think anybody in the world has been perfect on management, everybody that's ever worked for them. So, yes, it's -- it's -- it's a flaw. But I think it's a human flaw. And I think it is probably shared by a lot more people than myself, because, you know, when you have hundreds of people over the years that have worked for you, and it's happened even in big corporations or big newspapers or on TV stations, you can't monitor -- every once in a while, somebody on a TV station will say something, but as the owner and (inaudible) you know, get blamed for what the person says. So, no, you can't monitor every single thing, but it is a flaw. And, of course, I -- I admit that I'm an imperfect person and -- and didn't monitor that as well. But to -- to paint my whole life on that is a gross distortion, because we have to remember, I didn't write them, I didn't see them before that, and I have disavowed them. That to me is the most important thing.

The only other thing that we should do is you and others should look at all my other statements and my defense of civil liberties and race relations. Believe me, if anybody cared about, all they have to do is go to the Internet. The defense is honest and straightforward, and you will get an honest assessment of my views on race relations.

And that's all I ask for people to do, because I feel quite comfortable with myself. I know where the shortcomings were. But I'm very comfortable with my viewpoints, believing very sincerely -- those people who know me know exactly where the -- the defect is in race relations today. It's in the judicial system, where minorities are mistreated more so than anybody else.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman and Doctor Ron Paul, we have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Good luck on Tuesday, and hope you have a great 2012.

PAUL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Congressman Ron Paul, confident heading into Tuesday's caucus. My next guest sounds just as confident, but her path forward is a lot more murky. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann joins me from Des Moines.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us, and happy new year.

BACHMANN: Happy new year to you. Great to be on with you this morning, Jake.

TAPPER: So the last time you and I spoke, you had just won the Iowa straw poll. The Des Moines Register poll had you tied for first place with Mitt Romney with 22 percent of the vote. Now that same poll has you with 7 percent of the vote. What happened to your campaign?

BACHMANN: Well, we've had a very good campaign. And I think what's happened is, a lot of candidates have come in, and Iowa voters and national voters have taken a look at all of the other candidates. But we have done I think what no other candidate has done, and that is, after the last debate, we've gone across all of Iowa, all 99 counties, and we've actually done heavy, heavy retail politics where we've gone into cafes and into living rooms of Iowans, and we've made a very strong connection with a lot of people.

And if you look at the polls, it's upwards of 40 percent to 50 percent of Iowans haven't made their decision yet. And I think the polls, what they're reflecting will be very different from what we're seeing on Tuesday night, because people make their decision, quite honestly, in the caucus room. Iowa is very different. People gather in living rooms. They gather in elementary schools and churches, and they make their decision on the spot with their neighbors. And we have done, like I said, what no other candidate has done the last two weeks. We've put over -- almost 7,000 miles on our bus, and we've literally gone from town to town to town meeting with people directly. And we saw thousands of people switch their vote just in the last couple of weeks, so we think there's going to be a very profound shift that people see on Tuesday night.

TAPPER: Well, one of the -- one of the dilemmas that you've had is that a lot of the voters that you are competing for, conservative voters, Christian evangelicals in some cases, are also being wooed by Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. And Santorum has momentum right now. He is at third place in the Des Moines Register poll. And if you look at the last two days, he's in second place. He has strong social conservative credentials. He's fluent in foreign affairs. He won statewide twice in a key swing state, Pennsylvania. So why should voters go for you and not him?

BACHMANN: Well, because I'm the strongest core conservative in this race. There is no comparison with all of the other candidates and my credentials. No other candidate has current national security experience in the race. I sit on the House Intelligence Committee. I am daily involved with the issue of national security. No other candidate is.

And as what we -- what we are seeing happening with Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, that will be a formidable issue immediately with the next commander-in-chief. I'm ready. No other candidate is currently ready in that issue.

Also, I'm the only federal tax litigation attorney in this race. When it comes to dealing with the number-one issue that's on voters' minds, which is out-of-control spending, I have that credential in spades over any other candidate, because no other candidate was leading on this issue in the halls of Congress or in Washington or nationally. I'm the one that called for saying "no" to letting Barack Obama increase the national credit card limit.

And when it comes to social issues, there's no one who can -- who can compare with my record. I'm a mother of five, a foster mother to 23 children that we've raised, and also I have an unassailable record on life, on marriage, on religious liberty. So when it comes to values and issues, there is no one who comes close to where I am on those issues.

But I think even more so, I'm the one that's been proven and tested in the fires of Washington, and that's why I think you saw people vote for me in the Iowa straw poll, but also it's what we have done on the ground. No other candidate has done more retail campaigning on the ground.

TAPPER: But...

BACHMANN: And I think we'll bear the fruit of that on Tuesday night.

TAPPER: But with all due respect, Congresswoman, this is the same pitch you've been making all summer and all fall and -- and up until today, and you're in last place, according to the polls. And -- and somebody that has similar credentials to you and a similar appeal to you, Rick Santorum, is showing huge momentum. Why you over him?

BACHMANN: Well, again, I think the polls take a few days to catch up. And -- and we have made that incredible deposit of going in every single county. We've drawn 300 people at a stop, 250 people at a stop, and I think a lot of that isn't yet reflected in the polls. And the main thing will be on Tuesday night.

We're looking forward. We're not looking in the rear-view mirror. And what we're seeing going forward, especially with the tremendous outpouring of young people that are coming out to work on our phone banks and to go lit dropping and door-to-door is nothing short of amazing. We're -- we're number-one in the category of enthusiasm. If you look at all of the candidates, which candidate has the most enthusiasm among their supporters, I'm that candidate. I'm number-one with the 18- to 29-year-old voters, which are highly motivated, and they're doing all of the work.

So I think that if you look at my past races, and polling data showed me actually losing and 8 points behind in previous races that I've had when I've run for Congress, and yet I -- I win by 8 and 13 points. So polls don't -- are -- sometimes belie the truth on the ground, and that's what we see. This isn't just about polling. This is about what we're seeing in reality, and I think Tuesday night people are going to see a miracle.

TAPPER: In the last week, your campaign has gotten involved in a big kerfuffle about one of your top supporters, your chairman in Iowa defecting and going to the Ron Paul campaign. I don't want to get into the weeds on that debate. There was a back-and-forth about whether or not he was paid off. He denied that you accused him of doing that. But this is not the first time you've made a charge like this. You've also said this about other supporters with Newt Gingrich in Georgia, with Rick Santorum.

Don't you risk -- making these charges, doesn't that risk voters seeing you as making a final gasp of desperation?

BACHMANN: Oh, for Heaven's sake. Of course not. What this shows is the tremendous momentum that we have out of the last debate. From person after person, they said that I won the last debate in Sioux City, Iowa. And the reason why is because, when Ron Paul made his very dangerous statements, which is he was just fine with Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, or with Newt Gingrich taking $1.6 million from Freddie Mac and he was unable to defend that, I -- I took it to them.

And what people saw during the last debate is that I have the ability, of all of the candidates on the stage, I have the best ability to take it to Barack Obama in the debate and hold him accountable. We had tremendous momentum coming out of the last debate, and we saw it in county after county in our 99-county tour, where people were just appalled by Ron Paul's position. They thought it was dangerous.

That's why we saw literally thousands of people switching their decision on the spot, and that's what you saw, was this crush of momentum. And so we saw some different actions coming out of the Ron Paul campaign. And I think that people will be very surprised at the results on Tuesday night, because I think people will see a lot of defections away from Ron Paul because they see -- especially with the aggressive nature of the actions on the part of Iran in the Straits of Hormuz, people are seeing how important it is that we have a commander-in-chief who is conversant, prepared, knowledgeable, and has good judgment on foreign affairs. And of all of the candidates in the race, I'm best suited for that -- that portion of being commander-in- chief.

TAPPER: Congresswoman, we only have a little bit of time left, so last question. In the interests of candor and being based in reality, positing that you feel that you're going to have a very good night on Tuesday and that all the polls are wrong and you're going to do well, but assuming that the polls are right, isn't that, practically speaking, the end of your campaign if you come in last on Tuesday?

BACHMANN: Well, we've bought tickets to head off to South Carolina. And we are looking forward to the debates. January is a very full month. We're here for the -- for the long -- for the long race. This is a 50-state race. And we intend to participate not only in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, but to go all the way, because I intend to be the Republican nominee and defeat Barack Obama in 2012, because America needs a candidate that will be in the legacy of a Ronald Reagan and of a Margaret Thatcher. That's what I intend to do, is to be America's iron lady.

TAPPER: All right. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, good luck on Tuesday. And hope you have a wonderful 2012.

BACHMANN: Thank you. Same to you and your listeners.

TAPPER: Up next, our first roundtable of 2012 lays odds on Iowa. And we'll ask Governor Terry Branstad who has the inside edge in his all-important state.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: So we are just two days away from the Iowa caucuses, and that new Des Moines Register poll shows there's still time for a Tuesday upset. So let's go right to the roundtable, Washington Examiner chief political correspondent and Fox News contributor Byron York, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, Craig Robinson, founder of the conservative blog The Iowa Republican, and ABC News contributor and former chief political strategist for George W. Bush, Matthew Dowd.

Thanks, one and all, for being here, for giving up your New Year's, and for being here today. I want to go through those Des Moines Register numbers -- Des Moines Register poll numbers again. The overall support numbers show Romney with 24 percent, Paul with 22 percent, Santorum with 15 percent. But as you political junkies know, this is a four-day poll. And in the last two days, just looking at the last two days, it's actually Romney with 24 percent, Santorum with 21 percent, Paul with 18 percent, indicating some Sant-mentum.

Byron, you have been somewhat bullish on Santorum for some time.

YORK: I have. Well, he is the one who has room to grow. When you look at what happened to all the other candidates, when you look at what happened to Bachmann, to Perry, to Cain, they all fell because voters began to realize that they weren't really prepared. They began to think they didn't have enough preparation or knowledge to be president.

Newt Gingrich, a lot of social conservatives still can't get over the three marriages parts. And he has fallen after all of these negative attack ads.

But when you asked them what the problem with Santorum was, they always said, "He can't get elected. I really like him, but I just don't think he can get elected."

TAPPER: Because he's at the bottom of the polls.

YORK: He's only 2 percent or 3 percent in the polls.

TAPPER: Right.

YORK: If you take away that problem -- and that is gone now in these new polls -- he has room to grow. So there are a few voters -- you know, Gingrich apparently is still falling. And there are some voters -- Paul appears to be falling -- there are voters who still can go to Santorum.

TAPPER: And, Neera, you worked for Hillary Clinton, who in the Des Moines Register poll right before the -- was it 2007 or 2008? Whenever it was, 2008...

TANDEN: We don't have to remember, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But in any case, she was -- she was at second place neck and neck with John Edwards, and then ultimately at the end she came in third. What does a candidate have to do to be able to withstand a not such a great showing in Iowa to be able to continue to run a campaign like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did?

TANDEN: Well, I think this is the issue for Santorum, which is that he can't -- you know, whether he can really be the alternative to Romney, because -- does he really have the legs to go into South Carolina, Florida, to the rest of the races? I mean, I think that's why Romney is OK with Santorum coming up behind him, because it really an issue of, who can sustain? And Santorum does not seem like the threat that Newt Gingrich is, and that's probably why he's not withering -- under withering attacks right now.

TAPPER: And, Craig, you're the Iowan at the table here. The Des Moines Register poll is important.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I mean, this is the final snapshot. And I almost think this poll is more important because it might be a tiebreaker for a voter, where if you're truly undecided and you're trying to weigh between Gingrich and Perry or Santorum and Bachmann, you're going to probably lend to go with the person who's in the front instead of in the back.

And so the other important thing is, is that Santorum clearly broke away from the back of the pack. And so I think that means that Gingrich and Perry probably stay put and Santorum has all this momentum. And I think he's going to, you know, take all those votes and probably have a real shot at second place or even winning this thing.

TAPPER: Matt, put this all in perspective for us. What have we learned?

DOWD: Well, the interesting thing about this is, first, is Iowa is not known for picking the president, but they are known for picking the losers. And so if you don't survive the Iowa gauntlet, it's hard to keep going on. And so I think that's what we're going to see. We're going to see a number of candidates on either Wednesday morning or in the days after begin to say, "Our campaign is folding." They may not enunciate it. To me...

TAPPER: Predictions?

DOWD: Well, we will get there.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: OK, OK, OK.

DOWD: To me, this whole thing...

TAPPER: I'm greedy.

DOWD: ... is an incredible -- and I know people have used this -- incredible circus atmosphere that we've watched over the last six months. It reminds me of the car that pulls in the ring of the circus and all the clowns start -- one after another start getting out. And we're like, OK, that's the last one to get out, and then all of a sudden the last one comes out of the trunk. And it's like, what's that? And Rick Santorum is getting out of the trunk today.

And I don't think Rick Santorum can sustain it. He has no national -- when Mike Huckabee rose last time, he was rising in Iowa, he was rising nationally. We still say Newt Gingrich has fallen, he's done, he's done, but Newt Gingrich is tied nationally still in this race. If Newt Gingrich can survive this in Iowa, get through New Hampshire, he still has a shot to do well in South Carolina and Florida, if he can get through this next 10 days.

But what Iowa will do, and then what New Hampshire will do is basically say this field has now gone from seven candidates to probably three or four. And that I think, Jake, is Mitt Romney's real test. When this race is no longer a seven-person race, can he get 35 percent, 40 percent of the vote in places other than New Hampshire? And he has not yet proved that he can do that.

TANDEN: I mean, Mitt Romney is -- may win with fewer votes on Tuesday than he got four years ago after running for six years.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He came in second against Mike Huckabee.

TANDEN: Right. And he's -- and he's been running -- he's been doing this a very long time. So, obviously, there's a lot of consternation in the party about it. And the question really is, when you're in a three-person race -- this was the same four years ago with Hillary -- when you're in a three-person race, who can be the alternative? And -- and will that person outgrow Romney...

(CROSSTALK)

YORK: And we've also seen that negative ads really do work. I mean, Gingrich was at 25 percent in the last Des Moines Register poll. He's at 12 percent now, biggest fall of anybody. And these -- these ads that were run by Mitt Romney's super PAC and also by Ron Paul -- the Ron Paul ad was just devastating. You could not be in Des Moines or anywhere in Iowa, listen to the radio, watch television, and not see an ad bashing Newt Gingrich.

TAPPER: And -- and this is just not anecdotal. Half the ads in Iowa, according to the campaign Media Analysis Group, half the ads in Iowa had a Gingrich focus.

YORK: Of all the TV ads.

TAPPER: And the vast majority were negative; 45 percent of the ads aired in Iowa were anti-Newt Gingrich. Can anybody withstand that kind of negativity?

DOWD: Well, they only can withstand it -- the reason why I think they were so effective on Newt Gingrich is because they were true. And they were -- here's a guy that arrived with a tremendous amount of baggage, a tremendous amount of stuff that people were sort of - like I liked how he was impressive in debate. As soon as they started hearing here's a creature of Washington, I don't think it has a lot to do with his three marriages. I think it has a lot to do with this guy is a total creature of Washington.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: But this is their problem with Romney. If you look at the Romney super PAC ads, what are they beating Newt Gingrich up on? That he's a flip-flopper and that he supported a health care mandate. So I think going down past Iowa, is Romney's super PAC giving other candidates kind of the key to attacking Romney?

YORK: Well, but that raises the question: Where have been the anti-Romney ads? I mean, he's got a whole trunk load of baggage, with the...

(CROSSTALK)

YORK: ... with Romneycare. Well, Rick Perry could have run some. I mean, I asked him yesterday, why haven't you guys attacked Mitt Romney? And they said, well, we're fighting. They essentially say -- they don't say it -- they say we're fighting for second place. We're trying to...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: They're trying to be the anti-Romney.

YORK: Exactly. We're fighting among the conservatives. But in the meantime, they're not attacking Mitt Romney the way Newt Gingrich...

(CROSSTALK)

DOWD: I totally agree with that. I think that they're strategically -- the non-Romney folks have made a strategic mistake by not contrasting themselves with Mitt Romney. If they wanted to be the non-Romney, they should have gone after Mitt Romney. Michele Bachmann should have gone after Mitt Romney. Rick Perry should have gone after -- Newt Gingrich should have gone -- one of them should have said, no, I'm not going to go after the other conservatives. I'm going to go after Mitt Romney. And I think they would have positioned themselves much better, I agree. TANDEN: But this is -- this is the total irony of this race, which is Newt Gingrich, who has had a long record of negativity, one could say, decided in the last month to be a completely passive, positive candidate. I think that will change dramatically. He's already telling people he's going to probably go more negative. We're going to have a debate this Saturday. And you'll see, I think...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I think he's -- I think he's putting it -- I think he's saying he will tell the truth. I don't think he's saying -- I don't think he's saying I'm going to go negative

(CROSSTALK)

TANDEN: I think he is saying he's going -- he seems to be telling...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I will draw a contrast.

TANDEN: ... he's going to be contrasting with Mitt Romney much more directly. And I think...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: ... doesn't get that opportunity, though, if he finishes fifth in Iowa. If he finishes fifth, that's damaging to him. How does -- I know he's currently leading in South Carolina and Florida. But after Iowa, I mean, we've seen Mike Huckabee change the dynamic of the polls after -- in 2008. I don't think Newt Gingrich can -- can count on his standings in these other polls in other states after Iowa, if he finishes poorly there.

YORK: He did not do this just out of generosity. I mean, this was the strategy on his part. And after the early debates, every Republican who watched him liked the fact that he did not go after fellow candidates, that he would say we only have one real opponent, and that's Barack Obama. And they would all say, you know, I hate it when they bicker with each other. Remember when Perry and Romney were going after each other?

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He was a statesman.

YORK: He was above it all. And it worked for him, until the Romney ads came out.

TAPPER: But does he get...

TANDEN: Right, but he's been tanking. I mean, it was -- it's 10 days, and he's tanked significantly after 10 days of ads. I mean, he -- so it does seem odd that he hasn't -- he hasn't changed his strategy in the last week or so. ROBINSON: I question if he's going to have that opportunity to be that elder statesman again after Iowa, when the focus of the race is going to be on Romney, Ron Paul, or Santorum. I mean, once again, he goes to the outside edges of the debate stage, and can you still be that elder statesman? I don't know if he gets that chance.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Romney for one second. One other interesting note -- pardon me -- in the Des Moines Register poll was they asked would-be caucusgoers, who do you think is the most electable? Who has the best chance of beating President Obama? Look at this: Romney, 48 percent; Gingrich, 13 percent; Ron Paul, 12 percent.

So there are more people in Iowa who will attend the caucus who think Romney has the best chance, but will not vote for him, than there are people who think Romney has the best chance and will vote for him.

YORK: This is what Santorum is trying to fight against. He said, look, don't play pundit. Please do not play pundit. Right now, vote for who you think is best. He's saying that at every single event he goes to, because he knows that the number-one consideration among a lot of Iowa voters is electability. But of course, for a while, they thought maybe that was Herman Cain. For a while, they thought it was Newt Gingrich. And Santorum is saying, please, just vote who you think is best.

DOWD: Well, that -- to me, this is -- this is the entire -- this is the entire narrative of this campaign is about Mitt Romney, and why hasn't Mitt Romney been able to close the deal with voters? I mean, that really is what this -- we've had rises and falls, but the consistent storyline is, Mitt Romney, nationally, the only place that he seemed to break this is New Hampshire, where he basically has a house, where he's lived basically most of his life.

TAPPER: And he was governor of a neighboring state of Massachusetts.

DOWD: Why can't -- even though he performed better than probably ever candidate at a debate, he's got the best campaign organization, he has the most money, he seems the most electable, he can't close the deal, that they keep looking, no matter who it is, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum. They seem to keep wanting to find somebody else.

TAPPER: Ron Paul.

DOWD: I think -- and Ron Paul -- there's still another twist in this race.

TANDEN: Right.

DOWD: I think Mitt Romney still has to prove that he can exceed a level of support. When he's only running against one-on-one against somebody in South Carolina or Florida or one on two, can he make -- can he get past 30 percent or 40 percent of the poll? TAPPER: Neera, as a Democrat -- no offense -- as a Democrat...

(LAUGHTER)

TANDEN: No offense taken.

TAPPER: I just meant like (inaudible) about to ask you to be the official Democrat at the table, who do you least want President Obama to face? Who is the biggest threat?

TANDEN: That -- that is very hard. I mean, a lot of people will say Mitt Romney. But, you know, the challenge for Mitt Romney is that he so represents the 1 percent, Wall Street, so much of what Americans are angry and upset about. There's a strain of economic populism in both parties. It's a driving force. It's actually what's been helping the president over the last four or five months, who's, you know, I should say, doing better now than he's been doing in a long time, and he's in a stronger position. And I think the challenge for the president...

TAPPER: Relatively speaking. Let's not go crazy, right?

(CROSSTALK)

TANDEN: You know, the problem for Mitt Romney -- and the New Hampshire -- and Manchester newspaper did this in its endorsement of Gingrich -- is that Romney really represents all that people are angry about in -- in America. And so I think, after a year-long campaign, I think Romney is also going to be very vulnerable.

DOWD: To me, President Obama -- President Obama is -- President Obama cannot have this race be about him.

TAPPER: Right.

DOWD: If this race is about President Obama, he will lose. I remember very, very well in 2004, at this same point in time, when the Democrats were running for president, and John Kerry, everybody running -- all of the Democrats were running around saying how vulnerable President Bush was, and he can be beaten, and he can -- look how vulnerable he is, he can be beaten. President Obama's job approval rating is 8 to 10 points lower than President Bush was at the same time. The consumer confidence in this country is 30 points lower than it was when George Bush ran for re-election. And the wrong track number in this country is 40 points higher than it was in 2004.

And so, to me, this race -- if we are sitting where we are today and whoever the Republican nominee is, President Obama can't win under the circumstances that exist today, unless he decimates the Republican so badly that the alternative becomes I cannot -- like, I don't want President Obama, but that Republican is so bad I can't...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And we have to turn to predictions, but just to put a button on this last thought, who would be the most difficult person for him to decimate?

DOWD: I think the most difficult person right now for him to decimate would be Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney seems to be best able to sort of adapt himself to the circumstances of the time and make himself seem that he can appeal to independent voters. Whether it's true or not, he seems most adaptable to that environment.

TANDEN: But that's one of the reasons why it's easier to go after him. In times of trouble and anxiety, a guy who you can't count on for anything I think is a good argument for the...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: You sound like the Bush campaign of 2004 talking about John Kerry.

(LAUGHTER)

DOWD: The problem with that is, nobody sees President Obama like they saw President Bush. Nobody says, "Wow, President Obama is a strong, resilient leader."

TAPPER: We have -- we have to wrap this up.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I want quick predictions. Iowa, Tuesday, what's going to happen?

DOWD: Three-way -- three-way tie. And I don't know who's on top. Three-way top.

TAPPER: With the three...

ROBINSON: I'll go Santorum with the momentum.

TAPPER: Santorum number one (inaudible) Neera?

TANDEN: I'd say Mitt Romney wins with less than he had before.

YORK: Santorum.

TAPPER: Santorum. Sant-mentum.

Up next, we head to Iowa and the reporters who've covered this campaign day in and day out, and Hawkeye state Governor Terry Branstad joins us with his on-the-ground expertise.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Seven candidates, 13 debates, hundreds of rallies, thousands of commercials, millions of dollars, but now it all comes down to just one question: Who will Iowa voters pick on Tuesday night?

Let's go to Des Moines and Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad. Governor, happy new year. Thanks for joining us.

BRANSTAD: Happy new year. And I'll tell you, I think we're going to have a great turnout. People want a change in direction. They know we can't sustain this increase in the national debt, a trillion dollars a year under Obama. And they don't like the fact that he's divided the country, attacking the very people we need to invest and create jobs.

TAPPER: All right, so who do you think is going to win on Tuesday? Who has the edge? Would you -- would you agree with the Des Moines Register that right now it looks like it's between Romney and Ron Paul?

BRANSTAD: Well, also you see Santorum kind of surging here at the end, so I think it's a wide-open race. I've always said that a candidate like Santorum that goes to every county and works really hard, puts the time in and builds the organization has a good chance.

I think Romney also has come back and worked very hard in the last few weeks and has had a very successful bus tour. Ron Paul has worked this state very hard, as well. So those are the three that are the front-runners.

But also, Rick Perry could do better than some people think. And Gingrich, of course, was ahead just a few weeks ago. Who knows? It all depends upon who turns out. And I think we're going to see a good turnout, because people want to replace Obama with somebody that's going to restore fiscal integrity and focus on private-sector jobs and grow the America economy again.

TAPPER: Why do you think this Republican caucus has been so volatile with so many frontrunners and so many people going up and down in the polls like a rollercoaster?

BRANSTAD: Well, I think it's because of the debates. As you said, there have been more debates than ever before. I think social media has played a role, as well. I think people are looking for the perfect candidate, and most people have come to the realization there isn't a perfect candidate.

But we can't afford the direction the country is going. We need to choose the best and the strongest candidate with the best vision to re-create the American dream and bring federal spending under control and restore America's leadership position.

TAPPER: The Des Moines Register poll, which is a very respected poll, indicates that Governor Romney, Mitt Romney is about where he always is, at around 25 percent in the polls, but when you ask the Iowa caucusgoers -- potential caucusgoers who is the most electable, they overwhelming think that Romney -- a plurality of them think that Romney is the most electable, but his support is not there.

So what's going on there? Iowa voters think that Romney is the most likely to beat Obama, but they don't like him?

BRANSTAD: Well, I think they're looking for the perfect candidate, and there are some things about Romney's record in Massachusetts they don't like. But there are some things about the other candidates they don't like, either.

But when compared to Obama -- and they see what Obama's done, increasing the national debt a trillion dollars a year, his attacks on the very people that we need to invest and create private-sector jobs, the entrepreneurs and -- and the business class in this country, I think people are looking for the best leader.

And I can tell you, been -- having been through several races for governor, including beating an incumbent Democratic governor two years ago, I also in those polls was the one that people felt was the most likely to win. And I think Iowa voters and American voters want somebody they -- they're not happy with the direction of the country. They want to replace Obama. And I think that's an important factor in the closing days here of the Iowa caucus campaign.

TAPPER: Governor, as you know, some establishment Republicans fear that, if Ron Paul wins, it will be the death knell for the Iowa caucuses. Tell us why that is not the case, in your view.

BRANSTAD: Well, Iowa has always winnowed the field. And so it's all about beating expectations here. And so I think you've got really three contenders that are going to go out of Iowa.

If you're not in the top three in Iowa -- and I told Jon Huntsman that -- you're making a big mistake. And he made a tragic mistake by not coming and campaigning here. The other candidates that have, especially Rick Santorum, who did have a lot of resources, but worked very hard, I think he may be rewarded for doing that.

And Ron Paul, I think deserves credit for putting a strong effort in here, putting a lot of resources, a lot of time in. And people like the fact he's been consistently against this deficit spending and manipulation of the monetary system in this country. I think people have some misgivings about his positions on foreign policy, and I think that's something that people are starting to focus on here.

TAPPER: All right, Governor Branstad, thanks so much for joining us, and happy new year.

BRANSTAD: Thank you. Same to you.

TAPPER: Now let's bring in two reporters who've spent the past few days chasing candidates across the Hawkeye state, my friends, ABC senior political correspondent Jon Karl and Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson. Happy new year, guys. I'm going to start right with Jon.

Jon, you've been covering the Iowa caucuses since 1996. What strikes you as different about this one?

KARL: We've never seen one that has been so up and down, Jake. I mean, think about it. Look back. Six different candidates at one point or another held the lead or were tied for the lead here in Iowa. Every single one currently in this race has been on top, with the exception of one, and that's Rick Santorum, and he's the guy coming up now. This thing is wide open. And that makes it, frankly, a lot of fun to cover.

TAPPER: And, Kay, you've covered every Iowa caucus since 1987- '88. I'm interested to know, you see Mitt Romney for the second time. He campaigned last time, and -- and he won the straw poll, came second in the Iowa caucus. Now he's trying again for a win. Is he any different now than he was as a candidate four years ago?

HENDERSON: He is, indeed. He's a much more confident candidate on the stump. There have been several instances where he's shown that confidence. He also stuck to a campaign strategy that I don't think many people would have stuck to if they hadn't had the experience of having run before.

The other thing about this campaign is it reminds me a bit about 1996. The irony for me is the people who are running Romney's campaign on the ground here were running Lamar Alexander's operation in Iowa in 1996. So they know what it's like to be facing surging candidates at the end, and this may well turn out to be 1996 all over again, where Bob Dole eked out a victory, Pat Buchanan was in the second place, and Lamar Alexander got that third ticket out of Iowa.

TAPPER: And, Jon, Kay just talked about Romney's strategy in Iowa. It has been a muddled message of whether he's competing or whether he's not competing. What has been the reality of Mitt Romney's strategy in the Hawkeye state?

KARL: Well, Romney made -- you know, the campaign made much of being kind of hands off on Iowa, noncommittal. You remember they didn't compete in the Ames straw poll. There was a big question of whether or not they would actually really make a run in Iowa. But what I'm told is that Republicans here have noticed that Romney has had a subterranean campaign for a long time. If you went to Republican events around this state, going as far back as the summer, there would be Romney people there signing people up, getting names, getting phone numbers, getting addresses. Romney's had much more of a campaign in this state than he's let on, and now, of course, he is all-in.

TAPPER: Kay, we haven't had a debate in several weeks. I'm actually going through debate withdrawal, because we had them at seemingly every -- every day for several months, and now we haven't had any. But without the debates that clearly were hugely impactful on Iowa voters, how have voters been getting their information in the absence of these debates?

HENDERSON: They've been doing it the old-fashioned way. They've been listening to what the candidates are saying on the stump. And they're listening to these campaign ads. I think that's why you've seen Gingrich fall so precipitously. He didn't have a debate performance to sort of reassure Iowans that he was a guy who could carry their message forward.

TAPPER: And, Jon, Romney and his allies, the pro-Romney super PAC, plus, of course, Congressman Ron Paul, they have been attacking Newt Gingrich viciously on the airwaves. According to one study that we talked about earlier, 45 percent of the TV ads run in Iowa have been anti-Newt Gingrich. His response has been to almost turn the other cheek. Can he continue to still have this nice guy policy?

KARL: Absolutely not. And I'll tell you right now, Jake, that Gingrich himself is looking at this very carefully. He's made much of his promise to be positive. In fact, when you go out with Gingrich on the stump here, he gets applause when he says, we stay positive. So he's doing this, but he's called it a wonderful experiment. Can somebody who's been hammered remain positive, at least in his television advertising? That's about to change. Look for a new Newt Gingrich after Iowa. I think he's going to go on the attack and on the attack in a very big way in South Carolina. And it's going to be aimed at Mitt Romney.

TAPPER: And, Jon, just to stay with you for a second, as somebody who -- who covered Capitol Hill, as have I, Newt Gingrich is not historically known for sweetheart, powder-puff politics. I mean, this is -- this is a guy who has been rather tough in years past, right?

KARL: Yeah, you know, some would say he's invented this -- this thing that he now condemns. And listening to him now, he talks about what a mean, nasty, cruel business politics has become. And there's a big question of whether or not he's the messenger to actually deliver that.

And, you know, Jake, if you look -- dig down into that Des Moines Register poll, you look at to the question of, who most relates to ordinary Iowans? Gingrich comes in dead last, followed by Mitt Romney. But, you know, his message of being positive out here, people like the idea in Iowa of being -- you know, of a positive campaign, but -- but it is an interesting one coming from Newt Gingrich.

TAPPER: You know, it's funny, Kay, because covering the Iowa caucuses four years ago, it was almost as if any time anybody said anything negative, the press corps, you know, we -- we all shrieked and couldn't believe the horror that people were going negative. But when you're out in Iowa, as -- as I've been on this campaign season, voters listen to these ads, and -- and they read the fact checks in the newspapers and on TV, and they consider this just another source of information.

HENDERSON: Indeed, they do. And in particular with Gingrich, what it did is it reminded them that they had problems with his marital history, they had problems with his legislative history, they had problems with his history after he left Congress. And so it was kind of a multiple choice, and they got to D, which is, I'm nervous about him for all of the above. And that's what the ads did. They reminded people about the things that they didn't like about Newt Gingrich.

TAPPER: And one of the things that I -- when I was out in Iowa a few weeks ago that I heard from Iowa Republicans is that the most important thing for them was they wanted to beat Barack Obama. That was the top priority.

But how do you reconcile the idea that, according to the Des Moines Register poll, almost half of the would-be attendees at the Iowa caucuses think that Mitt Romney would be the strongest opponent, and yet his support is less than half of that? They think he is the most electable, but they -- they just don't buy him for some reason?

HENDERSON: Well, I think there's a difference between those voters who vote with their head and those who vote with their heart. And I think that particular statistic drives the nail on that point.

The other thing about turnout, when you look at 41 percent of the people who responded, of likely caucusgoers in that Des Moines Register poll said that they were, you know, convincible, they might vote for someone else on caucus night.

I think the real thing for turnout at the caucuses is, if they don't reach 2008 levels, that will show us something which all Republicans have been talking about, that there's no enthusiasm, whereas Republicans like Governor Branstad has been indicating that, you know, Iowa Republicans are so enthusiastic to replace Barack Obama. If among those 41 percent of people who say they're convincible, they might vote for someone else, if they just stay home because they're not interested in a candidate, I think that will be a really huge indicator about the Republican race in general and how enthusiastic Republicans are about this 2012 race.

TAPPER: All right. We're down to the wire here. One word, your prediction. Kay?

HENDERSON: Romney.

TAPPER: Jon? KARL: I'll go Santorum.

TAPPER: All right, thanks so much, and happy new year.

Up next, "Next Week in Politics," your cheat sheet to the Iowa endgame and beyond.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Brace yourself for a busy few days as voting finally begins. Here's a look at what to expect next week in politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER (voice-over): The Iowa caucuses arrive Tuesday, and the Republican candidates are making their final push, campaigning throughout the state. Frontrunner Mitt Romney rallies in Davenport and Dubuque on Monday, while Senator Rand Paul joins his father, Ron Paul, on the campaign trail, making stops in Des Moines and Cedar Falls.

After the caucuses that night, the Iowa survivors club will move on to Live Free or Die state, New Hampshire, where they will try to woo voters before the January 10th primary.

Except Rick Perry will head straight to South Carolina, making two stops in Aiken County Wednesday afternoon.

The remaining GOP field meets Saturday night in Manchester for the ABC News-New Hampshire debate, moderated by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. It begins at 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Pacific.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And now, "In Memoriam."

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

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And that is our program for today. Be sure to tune in next Saturday, when Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos moderate the ABC News Republican presidential debate live from Manchester, New Hampshire, at 9 p.m. Eastern.

And next Sunday, George Stephanopoulos returns to "This Week," taking over this broadcast as we plunge into this exciting election year.

For all of us here, thanks for watching. Happy new year. We'll see you next week.

END

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