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As Iowa Winnows the Republican Field, Who Will Survive for N.H. Primary Fight?

January 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In the final 24 hours of campaigning before Iowa's Caucuses, the pressure is on GOP presidential candidates to convince many undecided voters to caucus for them on Tuesday night. Gwen Ifill discusses what to expect coming out of the Caucuses with The Rothenberg Political Report's Stuart Rothenberg and USA Today's Susan Page.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the final 24 hours in Iowa, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report and contributor to Roll Call newspaper, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, who is reporting tonight from the Hawkeye State.

Stu, it seems to me, as Judy just reported, this thing is really up in the air. And it makes me wonder whether this is unusual or whether we’re just thinking it is.

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: I think there is a good deal of uncertainty.

And I think that that’s more unusual than in the past. There are three people who appear to be in the top tier, Romney, Paul and Santorum, questions about turnout, new kinds of voters, younger voters, conservatives, are they moving in one direction or another?

So, I think this is — there’s always some uncertainty in the caucuses, Gwen, because of the low turnout, but I think there’s added uncertainty this time.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, we heard in this new Des Moines Register poll everybody was waiting for on New Year’s Eve that 41 percent I think of the number of caucus-goers said, I don’t know, I could still change my mind.

So, even though it looks like Mitt Romney is in the lead, and it looks like Rick Santorum is surging, we don’t really know.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I guess I would disagree a little with Stu. I think we pretty much know that the top three finishers are going to be Santorum and Romney and Paul. We don’t know exactly what order they’ll be in.

And we know who that is good news for. Whatever order they’re in, it’s good news for Mitt Romney, because he’s going to be doing better here in a state that crushed his aspirations last time around, four years ago. It’s going to put him — whether he finishes first or second — in pretty good position in New Hampshire, where he’s highly favored.

You know, the Romney people are looking very happy, as are, of course, the Santorum people. And the Ron Paul people are also pretty energized. But it seems to me the shape of this race is pretty clear 24 hours before people will actually show up at those caucuses.

GWEN IFILL: Stu, we know that Mitt Romney has gotten kind of a consistent quarter of the vote, which it turns out in a split field, might be enough.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right. Right.

GWEN IFILL: But is that enough to really give him the strength he needs to launch into New Hampshire, no matter how strong he is once he hits the ground there?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think so, Gwen.

Obviously, expectations change. But right now, if you think about that Mitt Romney has a chance to win or finish second, and as Susan suggest, even finishing second with Rick Santorum emerging as the conservative alternative, the Romney people have to be thrilled. So, I think we know that Romney is going to be relieved after this.

And whether he has a big win, a narrow win, finishes second is less important. He’s going to go to New Hampshire with momentum. And New Hampshire, Gwen, is a terrific state for Mitt Romney.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, the Santorum surge, as we keep calling it, this him coming on strong here toward the end, is this something you have been able to document anecdotally or physically as you have been out there covering this campaign?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, you definitely see a lot of these social conservative voters who have gone between Perry and Herman Cain, lest we forget, Michele Bachmann, seem to be settling on Santorum.

I was at an event with Newt Gingrich the other day where he cried when he talked about remembering his late mother. And I talked to the Iowa woman who was sitting right in front of me. And she said, oh, that was beautiful. And I like a lot of what he said. And I said, so are you going to support Newt Gingrich? And she said, oh, no, I’m going to support Rick Santorum.

I think you do get the sense that Santorum has become kind of the last stop for these voters after they went from one to the other.

GWEN IFILL: So does that mean, Stu, that, as has happened in the past, each of these two front-runners now become targets for everybody else? We heard Rick Perry going after Santorum today and Gingrich saying he’s going to go after Romney.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely. This has turned out to be the Andy Warhol caucuses, where everybody has their 15 minutes of fame.

And it turns out right now that Santorum is the last man standing. But he’s the last man standing because nobody has yet picked apart his record and his experience. That is happening now, as we — as you suggest. And it is going to happen over the next few days and few weeks if Santorum emerges as a serious contender in New Hampshire.

GWEN IFILL: Is Rick Santorum prepared for that, Susan, whether it’s money raised or organizationally, to push back? We know what — Newt Gingrich was not.

SUSAN PAGE: No. Rick Santorum is not prepared for this. He doesn’t have an organization, much of an organization out there in the states. He’s really — he’s spent all his time going from town to town here in Iowa. That’s served him well in terms of the Iowa caucuses. It’s left him pretty bare when it comes to future contests.

We do have a string of contests that come on in pretty fast order. We have the New Hampshire primary in a week and then the South Carolina primary and then the Florida primary at the end of the month. So, he’ll have to pivot in a serious and fast way, raise money, spend it, get organized. That is a very tough — that is a very tough task for any candidate.

GWEN IFILL: How strong, Stu, is Ron Paul’s support? Watching him just now in Judy’s piece, I was struck by the fact that he seems shocked that all these people keep showing up to see him. Is it strong enough not only for him to come in second, but also then to do something with it after he leaves Iowa?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, his problem is he has a ceiling. And he’s probably nudging up against it. And, remember, this is the kind of place where — Iowa, where independents can participate. Democrats can re-register.

Once he gets into contests where only Republicans can participate, over the long haul, I just think that he doesn’t have the breadth of support within the party. In terms of intensity, we know it’s there. Ron Paul supporters will show up tomorrow night, no matter what the weather is. If a falling star falls in Iowa, they’ll be there.

But over the long term, I think there’s no reason to believe that he is a — and I will get more emails on this — he’s a serious, credible contender for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, when it comes to Republican caucuses in Iowa, do they serve a purpose of actually nominating or eliminating candidates?

SUSAN PAGE: I think the Iowa caucuses tend to winnow the field. They don’t often pick the president, but they eliminate some people from competition.

For instance, if Michele Bachmann comes in sixth here, after winning the Ames straw poll in August in a state where she was born and where there are a lot of social conservative voters kind of aligned with her sentiments, I think it would be very tough for her to go on.

And if Rick Perry comes in fifth, hard to believe he would be the first guy — one of the first candidates pushed out, given his standing as the nation’s senior governor and his money, but I think that’s also possible. We know already that, on Wednesday morning, he’s not going to New Hampshire. He’s going to South Carolina, bypassing that next primary, in hopes of recovering in that Southern state, where he may do a little better.

GWEN IFILL: And, apparently, so — Michele Bachmann is doing the same thing.

Is there room for a comeback for either of them, Stu?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I’m not going to proclaim their campaigns over here. But I think Susan is right.

GWEN IFILL: Why?

STUART ROTHENBERG: There are three tickets out of Iowa. That’s the saying, of course. Some people are saying, well, there’s going to be a fourth this time because Ron Paul gets one of the three, so somebody else is going to get one. There are certainly not five or six tickets.

So I think the candidates who finish those last two slots are going to have difficulty making a case that is credible, long-term. In the case of Michele Bachmann, she’s got to decide whether she wants to run for reelection to Congress. And she has got to do that sooner, rather than later.

GWEN IFILL: So, you imagine one of the planes that leaves Des Moines Airport on Wednesday morning might be heading home, instead of to New Hampshire or South Carolina, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think that’s possible, although we have these two debates next weekend in New Hampshire. Candidates might hold on for those. Those have been great opportunities for people to make a stand and take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes.

So it’s possible that we’ll see the candidates go on for just a little while longer. The fact is, we might see these candidates go for quite a bit longer given the changes in Republican rules this time. We haven’t really focused on this. But, you know, we’ve become accustomed to Republican races that get settled pretty quick by those Super Tuesday contests.

Mathematically, they have pushed all those — pushed some big contests back. They’re requiring proportional representation in the contests that come before April 1. And that could have the effect of pushing this contest into April and May, maybe even into those final primaries into June.

GWEN IFILL: So, why ever get off the debate stage if there’s going to be another debate and if the rules have changed?

Stu Rothenberg, Susan Page, thank you both very much.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Gwen.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thank you.