OTR Interviews

Progress Report: The State of the GOP Presidential Hopefuls

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," May 12, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, "ON THE RECORD" GUEST HOST: Well, tonight Greta Van Susteren, goes "On the Record." You heard that right, the tables have turned this evening. Greta is in a place that very few people have seen. In fact, reporters cannot get inside. Greta is there, though. She is in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. What is she doing there? We'll answer that question -- Greta will answer that for you herself in a very rare live report from the DPRK, and that is going to be fascinating. It is just minutes away, so stay tuned.

I'm Martha MacCallum, everybody, in New York this week for Greta. But right now, former governor Romney -- it is what's being called a make or break day for the man who is considered by many to be the GOP front-runner. He clearly has his eye on the White House, but some critics have their eye on the health care plan that he championed in Massachusetts. So can he really convince America that his plan was right and President Obama's plan is wrong?


MITT ROMNEY, FORMER GOVERNOR, R-MASS.: A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was just a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it, it was a mistake, and walk away from it. And I presume that a lot of folks would conclude that if I did that, that'd be good for me politically.

But there's only one problem with that. It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state. And I'm going to describe for you now what I think would be right for the people of the United States, which is quite a different plan.


MACCALLUM: Very interesting. So will voters buy this effort to distance himself from that plan to that extent? You can bet that the gloves are already out (SIC). The health care law -- there is no doubt it will be a major campaign battle for 2012. And other Republicans will want to knock Romney out of the running based on his alliance with that issue in Massachusetts. Several folks out there, as you well know, are still, quote, "exploring" a run. But finally, a few candidates are actually stepping their feet right into the water. The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, has announced. You saw it here last night. He is in. Tomorrow, we do expect that we will add Texas congressman Ron Paul to that list, as well.

So that's a pretty slim group as of right now. So the big question is, why is everybody holding back? What is the timing issue? When will we hear from them? Is it that they're afraid at this point that they cannot beat President Obama?

Karl Rove joins me now. He is the former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and the author of the book "Courage and Consequence." Good evening, Karl. Good to see you.


MACCALLUM: So let's talk a little bit first about Mitt Romney. Obviously, he's, you know, accepting the fact that this is a major hurdle for him. He's going to have to distance himself from the plan that he came up with in Massachusetts, though a lot of people say there are some striking similarities to Barack Obama's health care plan.

ROVE: Yes, he's decided to make a 10th Amendment argument, which is to say Massachusetts has a right to do what it thinks is best for the people of Massachusetts, but President Obama has no right to, in essence, put a one-size-fits-all solution on America.

Now, there are some differences between Massachusetts health care and "Obamacare," the Affordable Care Act. For example, in Massachusetts, the state of Massachusetts was picking up about $800 million dollars a year in uncompensated care. People would show up at hospitals, not be able to pay the bill, and the state picked up the tab.

And so it used as its principal funding mechanism saying, By requiring everybody to have insurance, we'll take that 800 million dollars that we're now putting out in uncompensated care and give it to people in the form of subsidies if you are low or moderate income and couldn't afford insurance.

The federal government does not pick up uncompensated care at local hospitals, like states do, so that's a principal difference. But both of them have the same similarity in this. They both have an individual mandate...


ROVE: ... a requirement that people, as a condition of being alive, at a certain age have to purchase insurance. And as you know, this is something that conservatives -- a lot of conservatives feel awfully strongly about.

MACCALLUM: Yes, and I mean, this is going to be before the Supreme Court this fall, this whole question of whether or not it's constitutional in the Obama health care plan. If it turns out that that individual mandate does -- is deemed unconstitutional, that's got to be a problem for him in debates for Mitt Romney.

ROVE: Absolutely. In fact, it may be a problem inside Massachusetts, too, because it's unclear that Massachusetts has a -- in essence, a power that give the state the ability to regulate -- to require you to purchase something. Governor Romney, you know, gave an able speech. He outlined a positive agenda. He gave other suggestions about what he would do in lieu of the Affordable Care Act. But you know, it wasn't a good sign when he gets met by an editorial this morning in The Wall Street Journal called "Obama's Running Mate," which was a very tough editorial about the state of health care in Massachusetts.

MACCALLUM: Yes. And in fact, you know, the White House seems to be embracing this issue. They're coming and out and saying that he's running from his own health care law. Why would he do that? And that was after they sort of cozied up to it and made it look like, you know, Our plan is just like his plan. If he's the top runner, you know, they're feeling pretty smug about that.

ROVE: Well, look, they're going to miss no opportunity to take digs at Republicans. They took a dig this Tuesday at the speech in El Paso on - - saying that Republicans were in favor of moats with alligators around the country. President Obama is on full campaign mode. We should expect this kind of drivel out of the White House with regularity.

But at the end of the day, Republicans are going to make up their mind in the primary based upon how each of these candidates constructs their own narrative and what they say they will do and what they've done in the past.

So Governor Romney has made a decision he's going to hang his hat on the 10th Amendment and say states have a right to be laboratories of democracy, but there's no right for the federal government to impose a one- size-fits-all solution on every state. We'll see how well in the coming seven months left between now and the Iowa caucuses in February -- how well that sells.

MACCALLUM: So Newt Gingrich officially announced that he's in the race. We expect that we're going to hear that fairly soon from Tim Pawlenty, as well. He's making four campaign stops in Iowa over the weekend. I'm going to speak with him moments from now. So I'm curious about your thoughts about Tim Pawlenty, you know, what you would ask him 20 minutes from now in terms of what is -- what his intentions are. And what about Newt?

ROVE: Well, look, this is the point at which it's important to try and get -- to understand why it is that they're running. What is it that they want to achieve? What is it that they want -- you know, what's their vision of America? What's their beef with Obama? Why shouldn't it be President Obama reelected? And probably most important of all, what is it that they've done that has given us a sense that they can actually do what they say they're going to do once we- once they get into office?

I think the American people took, you know, a -- in the 2008 election, they understood President Obama, then Senator Obama, didn't have much of a record, but he had an inspirational message and it -- they took the message of hope and change and ran with it. The question now is whether or not people feel as comfortable about that as they should. And my sense is that's going to lead a lot of people to say not only, What do you stand for, what is it you want to do, what do you say about Obama, but also, What is it about you that ought to give me confidence you're actually going to be able to do these things once you get into office?

MACCALLUM: Yes. I spoke to Sarah Palin on this show last night. She says it's early. It's really early. There's no reason...

ROVE: It is. It is.

MACCALLUM: ... us to get in. She wants to see a good, long fight between all of these candidates and as many people in the pool as possible. You know, I know you want to see a Republican win this election in 2012. You know, are you OK with this? Are you satisfied? Because...

ROVE: Oh, sure.

MACCALLUM: ... the general public is very impatient and basically saying...

ROVE: Yes...


ROVE: No, look, the public is -- is not impatient, it's the press that's impatient. And I understand why...

MACCALLUM: Perhaps there's some truth to that.

ROVE: ... they have to cover this race. But remember -- and remember this. Bill Clinton got into the race in October of the year before the election, 13 months before the general election. George W. Bush...

MACCALLUM: But that was a different time.

ROVE: ... gave his -- well, it is, but let me come back to that in a second. George W. Bush gave his first speech on June 16th of 1999. You're right, things are different today. They -- they -- things can move a lot faster. We have cable TV. We have talk radio. We have the Internet, which makes organizing and raising money a lot easier.

My sense is, is that we're -- we got plenty of time. We're here in May. June, probably sometime in early July is the point at which candidates start running up against a -- you know, a -- you know, there are enough candidates out there asking people to be for them that if you get in much past early or mid-July, you're probably going to have a greater difficulty in amassing the ground troops and the volunteers and the fund- raisers and the money to conduct a campaign between then and July.

But let's not kid ourselves. These people are all running. They've all had their sort of state PACs, their exploratory -- some of them have had exploratory committees. They've all found a way to move around the country in a very aggressive fashion. And why? Because they wanted to ask people to be for them before they became a candidate.

Martha, just imagine you're somebody sitting in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, and a candidate thinks enough of you to ask your support before they become an official candidate, or maybe even before they even form an exploratory committee. It's flattering, and human nature being what it is, it matters.

MACCALLUM: Yes, and you can see that ground game is at work. And Tim Pawlenty...

ROVE: Yes, absolutely.

MACCALLUM: ... as I mentioned, is going to make four stops in Iowa. Iowa's so important to the momentum, the early momentum of any one of these campaigns. And as you say, anybody can emerge.

You put out some interesting polling numbers today, kind of looking at the approval on different measures, on foreign policy, on the economy. When you look back at May, before a presidential election, the period we're in right now, you compared George W. Bush and the first President Bush, Clinton and Obama. How is Obama stacking up right now in those measures, Karl?

ROVE: He's at the middle to -- to down range on it. I mean, my point in putting this out -- and incidentally, I'm going to start publishing these numbers at Rove.com in easy to read charts on a regular basis so people can keep track of this. I'm going to be looking at the approval rating, the reelect and other measures that give us an insight as to whether or not a president can get reelected.

And I have a trend line that shows how Obama is doing versus how Bush was doing in 2004 and Clinton was doing in 1996. But if you look at these numbers, he is tending to be below the center. if I were -- if I were the West Wing political operation, I'd be a little bit worried about the president and it probably explains why they're going on such strong offensive...

MACCALLUM: All right...

ROVE: ... against prospective Republican candidates.

MACCALLUM: You know, it's going to be very interesting and, you know, if...

ROVE: Very interesting.

MACCALLUM: If you had to pick a couple of stand-out people at this point, who would you pick, Karl?

ROVE: I'd be picking, I think, the two dark horses who have a lot of room to grow. There's one man, there's one woman. I'd say Martha MacCallum and Sean Hannity. Those are the two candidates to watch.


MACCALLUM: All right, well, you never know.

ROVE: But you're right...

MACCALLUM: You know, as you said...

ROVE: ... it's going to be a really interesting race.

MACCALLUM: ... there's plenty of time. There's plenty of time.

ROVE: That's right.

MACCALLUM: We're going to form an exploratory committee, check it out. We'll ask for your help.

ROVE: There you go.

MACCALLUM: Karl, thank you very much. Always a pleasure.

ROVE: Thank you.

MACCALLUM: Good to see you, sir.

ROVE: You bet.

MACCALLUM: I'll talk to you soon.