MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Well, now from Biketoberfest to our own hard-riding political commentators, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. Welcome back to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.
DAVID BROOKS: Vroom, vroom.
BLOCK: We are in the...
DIONNE: I'm counting on David's deep expertise in NASCAR today.
BLOCK: We are ending a week where we had the second presidential debate and we're going to talk about that debate in a few minutes. But first, I want to listen to a new ad from Mitt Romney. He's using tape from the first debate, which he was overwhelmingly judged to have won.
MITT ROMNEY: Republicans and Democrats both love America, but we need to have leadership - leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if it's a Republican or a Democrat. I've done it before. I'll do it again.
BLOCK: David Brooks, Mitt Romney there is making a clear push for independent voters who like that kind of bipartisanship. Is he seeing success, do you think, with that message in these final weeks of the campaign?
BROOKS: It's a great message. I love that message, that's Romney model 37. It's my favorite model. You know, and it works. I mean, George W. Bush, I'm going to change the tone. Barack Obama, I'm going to get us beyond the stale debates of the baby boomer generation. It works because general election voters - while primary voters want you to champion their agenda, general election voters want you to fix the system in Washington.
And that's a perfectly rational thing to do. One of the things nobody's talked about, I think, at either debate is the fact that we have this looming fiscal cliff, all these tax cuts are going away, all these spending cuts are coming automatically. And whoever's going to avoid a recession, which I think is quite a likelihood, is going to have to fix the, you know, the dysfunctional politics.
And so it's a great message and it's something he has - at least when he was governor, has some experience with.
BLOCK: E.J., is there a danger of turning off base voters who say, I don't want you to reach across the aisle, that's not why I voted for you for?
DIONNE: Normally, that would be the case and one noticed that Romney said absolutely nothing like this in the primaries when he was fending off more conservative candidates. Of course, Democrats would say, gee, the Republicans stonewalled Obama, gave him no votes and now they blame him for the federal bipartisanship. Nonetheless, this is clearly aimed in general at independent middle-of-the-road voters.
And in particular, both parties are really targeting suburban women. And suburban women say, more than angry white men, do like the message of bipartisanship and can't these people work together in Washington. I don't know how effective it is at this point 'cause we don't even know how many really real undecided voters there are left. But as a way to close, it has part of this complete Romney remake as a moderate, that's part of the remake.
BLOCK: Well, in that vein, I want to get your thoughts on a new riff that we heard today from President Obama. He was at a rally at George Mason University in Virginia and he was talking about Mitt Romney's positions on numbers issues from taxes to equal pay to abortion.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I mean, he's changing up so much and backtracking and sidestepping, we've got to - we gotta, we gotta name this condition that he's going through. I think - I think it's called Romnesia.
BLOCK: Romnesia, he repeated that over and over again with the punchline - the good news is, if you have Romnesia, Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions. E.J., are you hearing a president who has overcome the damage done during the first debate, which he now is joking that he napped through?
DIONNE: Well, you know, it's funny, when you listen to his jokes at the Al Smith Dinner, he still hasn't fully gotten over what happened in that first debate. Many of the jokes were funny. But I do think that the second debate, you know, it was clear he realized that he couldn't let Romney remake himself without challenging him. And I think Romnesia is a very clever line and I think it's very significant it's happening in Virginia.
Romney's got an ad up really trying to fuzz up his position on contraception and abortion. You know, the ad says well, Romney is actually for contraception. Well, we kind of knew that because he doesn't have 11 or 12 kids. Of course, the issue is should the health care law require insurance to cover it. And then, it says he's in favor of abortion rights in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.
So the ad leaves the impression that Romney is far more pro-choice than he actually is. And I think it's a sign, again, the focus on women voters as decisive and that's - Romnesia for Obama is the cure to the problem he may have if Romney starts converting people back to him by fuzzing things up.
BLOCK: David Brooks, got that?
BROOKS: Well, they had this debate in the Obama campaign, how do we attack him, Romney, do we attack him as a flip-flopper or as a hard right severe conservative? And they wasted hundreds of millions of dollars attacking him as a severe conservative. All that money went away in 90 minutes when Romney came out.
And one of the things Romney did in that first debate, his favorabilities are now very comparable to Obama. So he erased the personality gap. And so now they're switching to the flip-flopper, which I think was probably more right all along. I think, still, the weakness for Obama is he spends all his time attacking Romney.
He has no sort of positive agenda, no second-term agenda. I still think that's the core gap, and I'm still sort of mystified why they don't try to fill that gap.
DIONNE: See, but if I could say, I actually think he does have a fairly significant second-term agenda. I could list a whole lot of things here. But they don't list it. He has not tried to package it in a way that people could hear this is what I'm going to do in my second term.
And somehow, even though the debate next week is on foreign policy, I think he might convey some of that in that debate.
BLOCK: I'm hoping that you guys can help us make sense of the polls that we've been seeing this week. The Gallup seven-day tracking poll of likely voters shows Mitt Romney now with a pretty hefty six-point lead, seems to be going against a number of other polls that show a dead heat or maybe a very slight edge to one candidate or the other. David Brooks, what's going on?
BROOKS: Can I first tell people, stop watching every poll, stop every 30 seconds looking for the polls...
BLOCK: You can. I don't know if we'll listen, but you can.
BROOKS: If you're only doing it because you think it'll make you feel better, it won't. You're not going to know the results until November. So, to me, one of the crucial issues is: Is this a national election or is it a series of state elections? If it's a national election, then Romney may be up one. If it's a series of gubernatorial elections in places like Ohio, then Obama has a comfortable lead.
Traditionally, the national vote has pretty much determined the states' votes. This year, we see a much bigger gap between the swing states and the national numbers.
DIONNE: See, I think this year is very hard for pollsters because what you have that's unusual is an overwhelming Obama lead among non-white voters. In Gallup's own poll, Obama's got a lead of better than five to one, if you bring together African-Americans and Latinos. And if a poll is severely, if I may use the word, underestimating the share of the vote that's minority in its likely voter screen, then it's going to get it wrong. If it overestimates it, it will get it wrong in Obama's favor.
What's interesting in Gallup is registered voters, Romney only has a one-point lead. Their likely voters have Romney with six. So they're clearly screening out a lot of Obama voters. I think it's much closer to a tie nationally, possibly with a very slight advantage to Romney because if it were this big a national lead, Obama wouldn't be ahead, as he is now, in New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada.
And so, I think you just got to keep an eye on what share of those polls is white and non-white, and it's going to be very difficult to guess exactly what those percentages are going to be in November.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I want to touch briefly on the third and final debate that will be on Monday, all on foreign policy. David Brooks, your expectations?
BROOKS: Don't nitpick about Benghazi. Don't have a little argument. Show - project your personality with some vision of America. Use foreign policy to expose your character rather than getting lost in the weeds of small foreign issue of the past. That would be my...
BLOCK: Is this your advice to both sides?
BROOKS: That would be my advice to both sides because people are not voting on foreign policy, they're voting on your personality. So you better expose that through a foreign policy vision.
DIONNE: Well, Obama already gave away an announcement in a joke that he will mention the words Osama bin Laden. I think Romney will still not resist the chance to finally get his attack on Benghazi right. He's had two goes at it, and it didn't work. But I agree with David. I think for most voters, it's where are you going to go generally and who are you, because voters don't expect lots of specificity on events they don't know - they don't know about in the future.
BLOCK: Thanks so much to you both. Have a good weekend.
DIONNE: You, too.
BROOKS: Thank you.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.