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Inside the battle for Iowa and New Hampshire

January 20, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
With less than two weeks before early voting starts in the 2016 race, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin officially endorsed Donald Trump in Iowa Tuesday night, attacking the Republican establishment in the process. Gwen Ifill talks to Paul Steinhauser of the NH1 News Network in New Hampshire and O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa for more on the battle for those key states.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the race for the White House and a familiar face on the campaign trail.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin stumped for Republican candidate Donald Trump today, after giving him her official blessing last night in Iowa. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, she took aim for the second day in a row at the Republican establishment.

SARAH PALIN (R), Former Alaska Governor: Here we got a redhead from the big red apple running for president, and yet the GOP machine, all of a sudden, they’re saying we’re not red enough, we’re not conservative enough.

And I say, what in the world do they know about conservatism?

GWEN IFILL: And with less than two weeks to go before the first voting begins, we get the latest now from political reporters in two key states.

Paul Steinhauser, political director for NH1 News Network, joins us from Manchester, New Hampshire. And O. Kay Henderson is news director at Radio Iowa. She is in Des Moines, Iowa.

Kay, what is the effect of the Sarah Palin bombshell yesterday in Iowa?

O. KAY HENDERSON, Radio Iowa: Well, number one, it plays into the Trump playbook. It steals all of the oxygen from the room, and that’s all anyone is talking about today, is Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

Number two, she’s kept in touch with Tea Party activists here in Iowa over the years. And, number three, I think it amplifies the core message that he has been spreading. And she uses a phrase typically called crony capitalism up against what she’s been railing for years, and he is the embodiment of that in terms of how he’s motivating people who are upset against the establishment and the — quote — “crony capitalists.”

GWEN IFILL: There’s no question she can suck the air out of the political room, and she’s also had the effect of getting people elected, including Ted Cruz to the United States Senate, who seems to have been the one person really campaigning for her endorsement.

O. KAY HENDERSON: And, also, she endorsed Terry Branstad here in Iowa when he ran to return as governor in 2010. She was an early endorser of Joni Ernst, the U.S. senator from Iowa, who won in a surprise — in a five-way primary in 2014 and then went on to win the seat in the U.S. Senate.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Steinhauser, does it reverberate the same way in New Hampshire?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, NH1 News Network: Maybe not as important here in New Hampshire, but, yes, it’s definitely an endorsement that can’t hurt Donald Trump. It could only help him here.

I was covering Ted Cruz. I was speaking with the senator minutes after the endorsement happened. I was able to talk to him about that. And he definitely downplayed the endorsement. He said he’s still friends with Sarah Palin. He recognized that she helped him get elected to the Senate in 2012.

But then Ted Cruz looked me straight in the eye and he said, at the end of the day, it’s the voters who are going to determine who’s the real conservative candidate in this race.

And it hurts his argument a little bit, because he’s been in a war of words with Donald Trump for two weeks now, arguing that Trump is not the real conservative. When Palin comes and endorses Trump, yes, its stings a little bit. But, at the end of the day, how much do endorsements matter? I guess we will find out in a few weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Well, of course, it’s easy, especially leading up to the voting in just a couple of weeks, Paul, to get caught up in the day-to-day polls, but there are a couple of polls in the past 24 hours which show Donald Trump with a quite definitive lead in New Hampshire.


And that has been the case for quite some time. Unlike Iowa, where you have got a real horse race right now between Trump and Cruz, here in the Granite State, Trump has been the front-runner, the clear front-runner for quite some time. The last two polls that came out in the last 24 hours say the same thing.

Right now, the battle is for second place and we have two polls out in the last two days that are very different, one saying that John Kasich is the clear second-place standing — in standing right now. Another one shows Ted Cruz in second place.

Cruz hasn’t been here a lot until this week. He’s doing a five-day bus tour. He’s getting some pretty large crowds. Kasich is also roaming around the state with his bus. And he’s getting some pretty large crowds as well. Don’t count out Jeb Bush. Don’t count out Chris Christie. Don’t count out Marco Rubio. We really have a five-way battle right now for second and third places here in New Hampshire, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a five-way battle in Iowa as well, Kay?

O. KAY HENDERSON: It seems to be two tiers of competition here.

You have the Trump vs. Cruz competing for number one, and then you have Carson and Rubio sort of positioned to be the alternative in that second tier, and then everybody else is in that bottom tier, trying to make their way to be a competitor against Carson and Rubio, and maybe emerge as the establishment candidate.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the Democratic side of this equation, Paul, which has also tightened up far more than a lot of people expected, especially in New Hampshire.

PAUL STEINHAUSER: Yes, in New Hampshire, it’s been a very different story than the rest of the country.

We have had this great race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders going back to July. That wasn’t the case elsewhere. I know now he has tightened up the race in Iowa, but Sanders has been the front-runner in all the polls here, and a new one out just yesterday indicated him up 27 points.

Now, I don’t know if we believe that, but he is the front-runner here. Maybe it’s only by eight or 10 or 12, but he is the front-runner here. And that has put Hillary Clinton on the defensive. You have seen her step up her attacks against Bernie Sanders over the last two weeks. You saw the debate the other night. And just in the last day or two, it’s getting even uglier.

Listen, Sanders is popular here. He’s from the neighboring state of Vermont. But I think it also shows that, just like we saw with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, Democratic primary voters, they are frustrated, they’re angry. They’re angry at politicians. They’re angry at Washington. They look at Bernie Sanders. Even though he’s a politician, he looks like the anti-politician. That’s why he’s getting a lot of this excitement and that’s why he’s doing well in the polls here.

GWEN IFILL: Are the Clinton folks getting nervous in Iowa, Kay?

O. KAY HENDERSON: Well, she is dedicating a lot of her personal time to come here in Iowa and campaign throughout the weekend.

I covered her in Toledo, Iowa, earlier this weekend. And she was telling voters that they need to choose someone who has a sensible, achievable agenda. It struck me that is sort of like your parents telling you that you have to choose the practical. And that’s the message that she’s going out to Iowans with to counter the Bernie Sanders political revolution rhetoric that’s really firing up some of the Democrats in Iowa.

This is a real nail-biter here in Iowa. It’s hard to tell when you’re on the ground who has the advantage.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s funny, because people usually resist what their parents tell them about these kinds of things. They love the insurgents, the bad boy.

But both in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of you sum this up for me. What are voters telling you that explains what’s driving this kind of volatility at this stage in the campaign, starting with you, Paul?

PAUL STEINHAUSER: Well, again, I think it’s just you throw all the rules out the window when it comes to this election cycle.

Voters in both parties, they are frustrated, they want something different, they want change. That’s why you’re seeing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump here in New Hampshire resonating so well and leading, and leading by a lot in these latest polls, Gwen.


O. KAY HENDERSON: If I could quote Sarah Palin, last night, she said, “We’re mad because we have been had.”

I think that sums up what the grassroots in both parties feels like right now here on the ground in Iowa.

GWEN IFILL: But, Kay, one of the cliches of Iowa politics is, it doesn’t matter until people will show up for these very difficult-to-manage-and-organize caucuses.

Does that, in the end, still hold true this year?

O. KAY HENDERSON: Clinton has an advantage, in that she started months before Sanders and she had far more financial resources to plow into an organization that her people think will turn people out on caucus night.

Both Sanders and Trump have the problem of actually telling people that they have to go to a specific site at a specific time and figure out the caucus process. It’s not like the New Hampshire primary, which is easy. You have to caucus at a specific time and a specific location.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be there with you.

O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa Network and Paul Steinhauser of — political director of NH1, thank you both very much.

O. KAY HENDERSON: Thank you.


GWEN IFILL: And, of course, we will always have the latest political news for you here, as the “PBS NewsHour” hosts the next Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This will be the first time the Democratic candidates will meet after votes are cast in those Iowa caucuses and just two days after the New Hampshire primary.

GWEN IFILL: We are working with Facebook to start discussion among voters now, inviting engaged voters who are still deciding how to vote to join our new Facebook group. You can talk with the “PBS NewsHour” politics team and possibly have one of your questions asked during the debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find out more about our debate on our Facebook group on the “NewsHour” Facebook page.

GWEN IFILL: And we will see you in Milwaukee on February 11.