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GOP Candidates Make Last-Ditch Effort to Get Iowans to Caucuses

January 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Republican presidential hopefuls seeking the first harvest of delegates this nominating season worked right up to the last minute Tuesday ahead of Iowa's Caucuses. Judy Woodruff reports on the candidates' last-ditch efforts, then Gwen Ifill speaks with Des Moines Register pollster J. Ann Selzer, who has been tracking the race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It is countdown to caucus night here in Iowa, and six Republican presidential hopefuls worked right up to the end. They were seeking the first harvest of delegates in the nominating season and all- important momentum going forward.

Wherever the candidates stood in the polls, the message in the final hours was the same: Get out the vote.

RICK SANTORUM (R): This is a big, big moment. All of you are going to have an opportunity to be able to vote in the caucuses tonight. And, obviously, I encourage you to do so.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn.: Come out to the caucuses, because tonight is your night to weigh in and make a difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The weather was cooperating in the bid to boost turnout. It was frigid, but clear. And there was no snow on the ground. That could encourage more voters to show up at 809 caucus sites statewide. They’ll be deciding the division of 25 delegates. Ultimately, it will take 1,144 nationally to capture the Republican presidential nomination.

MITT ROMNEY (R): We are an opportunity nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The front-runner for that nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, predicted Monday that he’d win Iowa. This morning, he scaled back to saying he would be among the top group.

And, in Des Moines, he was looking ahead to November and President Obama.

MITT ROMNEY: The president said he wants to fundamentally transform America. I don’t want to transform America. I want to restore the principles that made America. This is the America we love.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: I’m going to make sure we take those principles to the White House and get America working again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Romney came under attack himself. On CBS, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted Romney cannot disavow a barrage of negative ads that contributed to Gingrich’s slide in the polls.

QUESTION: Are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Yes.

QUESTION: You’re calling Mitt Romney a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, you seem shocked by it. Yes.

This is a man whose staff created the PAC. His millionaire friends fund the PAC. He pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney. He’s not telling the American people the truth. It’s just like his pretense that he’s a conservative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney, in turn, brushed off Gingrich’s jabs. He told MSNBC, “If I can’t stand up to that, I shouldn’t be the nominee.”

Meanwhile, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was also aiming to take first place in Iowa. He spoke to young voters in West Des Moines.

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: We see this as a real opportunity, this campaign and what’s coming up tonight and in the next several months. It’s a wonderful opportunity to restate our sound principles about why this country had been great and what we need to restore peace, prosperity, and liberty to all of us.

Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both Romney and Paul were watching the late-surging Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator played up his chances on ABC this morning.

RICK SANTORUM: They have looked at all the candidates. And they’re looking for the candidate they can trust. And that’s why we’re moving up in the polls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to reassure volunteers, despite his long-shot chances. He was already shifting his focus to the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: Just like the Super Bowl is starting now, I don’t get confused that this is a marathon. It’s going to go on for some time as we lay out our vision for America, as we talk about how to get this country back on track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also trailed the pack, but insisted she was still optimistic.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: We think people are going to be very surprised with what the vote is tonight. And we’re confident. That’s why we bought our tickets for South Carolina. We’re moving on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was no drama tonight on the Democratic side, but state party chair Sue Dvorsky said Democrats are excited about reelecting President Obama just the same.

SUE DVORSKY, Iowa Democratic Party chair: There is a load of enthusiasm on our side. And Iowa Democrats are coming out tonight to stand with the president, the stand with his record, stand for what he wants to do moving forward, stand with him, next to him, behind him, in front of him, and get ready to go. So, we are — we’re ready.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president planned a live Web chat with his Iowa supporters during tonight’s caucuses.

But the main spotlight tonight is, of course, on the Republicans. None of them is feeling confident. They all have a case of the nerves, especially those three who are bunched at the top: Romney, Paul and Santorum.

And that’s because expectations have been raised so high for them.

I will tell you though, Gwen, that every one of these six candidates is working hard to get out the vote and make sure they have people speaking for them tonight at these caucuses who are persuasive and can persuade anyone who is undecided.

GWEN IFILL: I think some of them are actually bringing their families, Judy.

So, their last day as they make their closing statements, who are they speaking to, especially these top three candidates?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they are talking to the constituents they’ve had all along.

I mean, Romney’s case continues to be: I’m the most electable. I’m the one who is best able to beat Barack Obama. I have that business experience.

He’s looking at moderate Republicans. And there are a number of those in Iowa. But he’s also trying to pick up more conservative voters. Ron Paul’s argument hasn’t changed either. He’s saying he wants radical change. He wants to cut the budget a trillion dollars the first year he’s in office. He wants to bring all the troops home from overseas.

And for Rick Santorum, who is really just now getting the kind of audience that he would have loved to have had for a number of months, he’s saying: I’m an authentic conservative, but I’m also able to work with people across the aisle, with Democrats.

So, all three of them are, in a way, making the same arguments, but just reinforcing them.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the people they’re trying to make those arguments to.

We keep hearing about undecided, uncommitted voters at the end. Are they undecided truly? Or are they just not in love with the person they’ve agreed to support?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think it’s a mixture, Gwen.

I think, truly, people, a lot of voters I’ve spoken to — I think you and I talked earlier today and I think I told you, of the 25, 30 voters I’ve talked to just in the last couple of days, only one of them was completely committed. Everybody else said, you know, I could change my mind. I’m leaning. I’m probably going to go Romney, I’m probably going to go Paul, or whomever else they like, but they let the door open.

There are some, I think, who are genuinely undecided, who are going to go to these caucuses tonight, listen to the arguments, and make up their minds then. And as you and I both know, there are always people at a situation like this who just don’t want to tell reporters or pollsters what they’re thinking.

So there really is an element of unpredictability tonight.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and part of it is, always in the closing moments in these kinds of campaigns, things happen that you and I don’t necessarily see. There are phone calls made. There are flyers that are slipped under front doors. Do we see signs of that happening in Iowa as well?

JUDY WOODRUFF: We sure are.

There are — and it now has become commonplace in American campaigns in the final days of the campaign and even earlier, but in this case in the final days of these — before the Iowa caucuses — so-called robo-calls. These are automatic calls, dialing one number after another.

We know there are calls going out from the Ron Paul campaign, because they are acknowledging they’re robo-calling. The Santorum campaign is accusing them of practically dirty tricks. They are saying Ron Paul is going after Santorum, saying he doesn’t truly have a clear record as a pro-life Republican.

They’re also saying he’s not truly for gun rights, as he says he is. There’s — you know, the water are muddied that way. But, Gwen, I would say the main way most Iowans are hearing from these candidates this year is over the television airwaves.

The candidates are — with one exception — and that’s Santorum — most of them really haven’t campaigned in this state until the very end. And most voters are hearing about them from what they see on TV. A lot of that is negative, most of it directed against Newt Gingrich.

GWEN IFILL: And, Judy, finally, lest we forget, Barack Obama is also caucusing tonight, or at least his supporters are. Is there any evidence of a Democratic caucus campaign going on?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we do run into Democrats when we talk to people in cafes.

And, today, I was at a Ron Paul — an event for — actually, it was run by Rock the Vote, this young voters effort to get young people out to vote. A number of young people there who had come to hear Romney, Paul, Bachmann told me afterwards they’re for Barack Obama. So we know there is some Obama support here.

The Obama campaign tells us they have eight campaign offices open in the state, more than any of the Republicans. They say they have made 350,000 phone calls. They say they are gearing up and ready to go. And the president is going to be talking to all these caucus sites. They’re going to be caucusing around the state tonight as well, 250-some places in Iowa.

The president will be defending his record and trying to put Iowa under his belt again in 2012.

GWEN IFILL: Well, thanks a lot, Judy. We’ll be back to pick your brain all night, especially later tonight, when we begin to get some results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great. See you then.

GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to Des Moines Register pollster J. Ann Selzer, who has been tracking a race that, in recent days, has turned into kind of a three-way grudge match.

So, Ann, what did your final survey that came out this weekend — we were all sitting on the edge of our seats on New Year’s Eve waiting for it — what did it tell us about who is actually going to be voting tonight and why?

J. ANN SELZER, Selzer & Co: Well, the race is so close.

And you’re seeing every candidate now in these final days breaking a sweat, something that we just really hadn’t seen. And they’re all fighting to get 1 percentage point more, 2 percentage points more. That may be what decides the race.

You have Newt Gingrich, who has fallen. And that vote got picked up by Rick Santorum, by — Ron Paul is sort of holding, slipping, not sure. And Mitt Romney sort of is staying where he was.

GWEN IFILL: You have been doing this for a while taking these kinds of surveys. Is there often a difference between what we see in that final poll and what the final voting turns out to be?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, I will humbly say that the Iowa poll since it started doing caucus polling has always gotten the top person correct.

But I can’t tell you that in my history with that poll that we have seen things as volatile and things as close at the end as we see in this final poll.

GWEN IFILL: So, is Rick Santorum actually surging, as we keep hearing?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, one of the indicators I have that that surge is real is that the other candidates are now coming after him. So, they must think that that surge is real.

GWEN IFILL: So, compare this moment in time to what it felt like four years ago, when Mike Huckabee famously got a big chunk of the vote by going and organizing evangelicals to support him. Does this feel like that, or does this feel different?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, what’s different is that we have more candidates competing for that evangelical vote. So it has splintered. And you really don’t have that kind of bloc before.

And keep in mind Mike Huckabee did not get 60 percent of the vote, and 60 percent of the people in the entrance poll said they were evangelical. So that vote is still a little bit elusive. It’s splintered. We’ll see what happens tonight.

GWEN IFILL: It’s easy for us to put people in little demographic boxes, but we also can believe, I think, that these are issue-driven elections as well.

So, when people talk to you and say, this is why I am voting for candidate-X, what are the issues which are driving them one way or another?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, there are two things that come through so crystal clear. There are people who are just adamant that they want to pick the right person. So the things that they believe in, the things that they espouse, what’s in their heart.

And then there are people who say the most important thing is who can beat Barack Obama, because it doesn’t matter what’s in your heart if you’re not in the White House. So that’s been the tension. And you can kind of sort out the candidates a little bit in terms of who falls into which camp.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, Ann, Iowa doesn’t have a great reputation for picking the winner of GOP nomination processes, even though it picks its winners on caucus night. How about this time?

J. ANN SELZER: Well, you know, nobody looks at a field as big as the Iowans have to evaluate.

So, one of the jobs the Iowans have is to sort of basically tell people who don’t have the stuff that perhaps they should get out of the race. Sometimes, we pick winners, George W. Bush. Sometimes, we pick vice presidents. Usually, it’s somebody who is successful.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, Ann Selzer, polling again for us tonight, thank you so much.