RAY SUAREZ: For months, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had been the clear Republican frontrunner in Iowa, having poured most of his time, energy and resources here in anticipation of the January 3rd caucuses. And among the Democrats, New York Senator Hillary Clinton all along has held the steady lead, not just in Iowa, but in national polling, as well.
But now, exactly one month from the Iowa caucuses, both candidates have seen their leads narrow or, in one poll, slip away.
It’s former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who’s moved to the front of the Republican pack. A Des Moines Register poll, just released, shows Huckabee with support from 29 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, a 17-point jump since October. Romney is now at 24 percent, with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani attracting 13 percent.
The Register’s poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers puts Obama on top with 28 percent, up 6 percent from October. Hillary Clinton is second with 25 percent, but within the 4.5 percent margin of error. And former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who finished second in Iowa in 2004, is close with 23 percent.
Meanwhile, the results of a new Pew Research Center-Associated Press poll still has Hillary Clinton first, with 31 percent support from likely caucus-goers. Obama is second at 26 percent, but within the poll’s 5.5 percent margin of error. John Edwards again is third, with 19 percent support.
In Iowa this weekend, Obama continued to make his case that he’s the most electable candidate and pointed to the new poll numbers.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: If you look at polls that have been done around the country, but also here in Iowa, it indicates that, in fact, Republicans and independents are more favorably disposed towards my campaign than they are to some of the other candidates.
RAY SUAREZ: Also in Iowa, Clinton went on the offensive against Obama and said she would continue to do so.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: But I have been, for months, on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks. Well, now the fun part starts. We’re into the last month, and we’re going to start drawing the contrasts, because I want every Iowan to have accurate information when they make their decisions.
RAY SUAREZ: Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and was asked if he was peaking too soon.
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: No, I’m not peaking at all. I’m still gaining and growing. You peak when you stop. We haven’t stopped yet.
RAY SUAREZ: And looking to allay concerns from Iowa’s Christian conservative voters, Mitt Romney has announced he’ll address his Mormon faith during a speech on Thursday at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
RAY SUAREZ: And joining us to explain a caucus race still very much in flux is Rekha Basu, columnist for the Des Moines Register; and Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, just back from the snows and sleet of Iowa.
Rekha Basu, let me start with you. Are you seeing, among Iowans themselves in the crowds, in what people are telling you, a reflection of what this poll of polls might say, if you took the trending of the results?
REKHA BASU, Columnist, Des Moines Register: I think actually what we're seeing is a race still very, very much up in the air.
And I think one of the -- there are three things to be said here about this. One is that Iowans are very much divided still. About 50 percent of Democrats and about 65 percent of Republicans say that their minds could still be changed, which is really pretty significant. And if you talk to people anecdotally, that's what you hear, that people really are still unsure, that some people are actually saying they might go into their caucuses and make up their mind at that point.
That said, yes, there are some discernible trends. And one is that when you have been the frontrunner -- and this historically has been the case in Iowa -- when you've been the frontrunner for a while, you become everybody's kind of favorite punching bag.
And even though everybody says, when you poll voters, they say they don't like negative campaigning, it doesn't work, the fact of the matter is it does work, because opponents are able to really take aim at you when you're the frontrunner and really tear you down and consistently have a long time to do that. So that's number two.
One thing, though, to remember is, four years ago, Howard Dean was the frontrunner about three weeks, by a clear majority, about three weeks before caucus day. And that, as we know, turned completely around. So things are still very much in flux, I think.
RAY SUAREZ: Ron Elving, have the candidates themselves changed how they're talking about each other and talking about themselves as they take the measure of this shift inside Iowa?
RON ELVING, NPR's Senior Washington Editor: One way you can tell, Ray, what the candidates really think of the polls is not from what they say about them, but how they then change their own campaign tactics to respond to them.
And as we've seen on the Republican side, Mitt Romney has come out in the last 24 hours and said, "I'm going to make that big speech people have been talking about me making for months and months." It's been a big controversy within his campaign, "Shall I make a big statement about my faith and address this problem that I apparently have with some evangelical Christians, and some other Christians, and some other people about his Mormonism?"
And he's decided to do that. Now, of course, he's been talking about doing it for some while, so he can always point to that, but it does come at this moment when he has suddenly been knocked off of the pedestal he'd been on in Iowa, for all these months, while he was the candidate spending the most money and the most time in Iowa.
On the Democratic side, we've seen not only Hillary Clinton and her campaign, but also the candidate herself going after Barack Obama in no uncertain terms. They're really trying to knock the halo off of his high-minded, idealist image and bring up a number of points on which they don't feel he's been honest in his campaign.
They've been asking him to take down some of his ads because of the representations in his ads. And they've been trying to change this idea that he is the high-minded candidate and she's the tough, gutter campaigner and realist.
RAY SUAREZ: On the Romney front, maybe this is something that hasn't escaped Mike Huckabee's notice, either, because his new commercials have in great big letters, as he's walking along a country road, "Christian leader." Not all that subtle.
RON ELVING: Well, he is, in fact, an ordained Baptist minister, in addition to having been a former governor of Arkansas. He is an ordained minister. And when he answers questions about religion, he does so with that confidence and that tone of somebody for whom this has really been his life.
So he has a more natural connection to a certain kind of voter, stronger in Iowa than, say, New Hampshire and some other states, very important in past Iowa caucuses. And that's his natural constituency that's helping him to this new, sudden lead in the polls in that state.
RAY SUAREZ: Rekha, both you and Ron have talked about tougher-edged campaigning. Does that work with the kind of people who go to caucuses next month?
REKHA BASU: I mean, they say that it doesn't, but, in fact, it does, because your vulnerabilities are exposed when you're up that long and when you're that much in the spotlight. It definitely does.
You know, if you look at a breakdown of some of what the responders said to our Iowa poll, one of the things that they were critical of was Hillary Clinton for being too ego-driven.
Excuse me. I'm sorry. I lost my ear piece for a minute here.
They thought that she was too ego-driven. Now, I think there's a bit of a gender problem here, too, because I don't think you would hear the same concerns expressed about a male candidate.
And another thing you need to know about Iowa, a couple of things that are significant about Iowans, both Democrats and Republicans. Number one is that Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress, to the Senate, to the governor's office. So there still is a significant gender gap in this state, in terms of what we say we would find acceptable and what we actually do when we go into the privacy of the voting booth.
The other thing is, on the Republican side, that the Republicans who tend to show up at caucuses are very much of the evangelical Christian mode. They're very conservative Christians, very conservative on social issues.
So in that regard, I don't think Iowa is as broadly reflective of the rest of the country, in terms of who Iowan Republicans find acceptable candidates.
Rudy Giuliani has not even campaigned here, and he's not doing well here at all. And he didn't even show up for the straw poll, which was back over the summer, because he's considered too liberal and too progressive on social issues. And I think that's the reason why Mike Huckabee is doing extremely well.
RAY SUAREZ: And let me jump in there and go to Ron Elving, because Mike Huckabee has hardly campaigned in Iowa, hasn't he?
RON ELVING: He has been very rarely in the state since November 8th. He was there this morning when I got up in the morning. In my hotel lobby, there was Mike Huckabee getting ready to start his day, and he's out and about in the state today.
But he is not going to be spending this entire week in Iowa. He's going back to New Hampshire. He's going to South Carolina, the next hurdles he would have to get over, so that this firewall that the other candidates may feel they have against the Huckabee phenomenon might become, in some sense, combustible for him, if he does, in fact, win the Iowa caucuses.
But negativity, you know, segues into this electability question. And this is, I think, crucial in Iowa and New Hampshire, because these Democrats and Republicans are thinking strategically as voters, as caucus participants. They're asking, "Are we choosing our most electable candidate who will win in November?"
We used to not think that people did that in these events, that they voted more their own feelings, their own preferences, but many of these people are saying, "I want to choose the one Democrat, the one Republican who can beat the other team," who can beat Hillary Clinton, if you're a Republican, who can defeat Rudy Giuliani, if you're a Democrat.
They're already thinking in those terms, and that's why they're worried about the vulnerability of their own potential champions. They're worried about negative ads that might be made against Hillary Clinton, negative ads that might be made against their candidate.
Second choices count in caucuses
RAY SUAREZ: Rekha Basu, because a poll is different from a caucus, because in a straight-up ballot election is different from a caucus, in Iowa, it matters who people's second choice might be, because if a caucus district doesn't come up with a clear choice, people move to their second choice. What can you tell us about what people are saying in that regard?
REKHA BASU: Well, I mean, that's the thing. It's extremely close. At the moment, what the Iowa poll showed is Barack with 28 percent and then closely followed by Edwards and Clinton, Clinton and then Edwards.
But very clearly that could shift, has shifted in the past, and probably will continue to shift, because as you noted, if there are not enough people for one candidate -- in other words, that candidate is declared not viable when you go into a caucus -- then a pitch is made by another campaign to shift some of those voters over. So it can be extremely fluid.
I actually interviewed someone a couple of weeks ago who said she is so -- and this is the way I think Democrats generally are feeling -- they feel that there is a field of very good candidates for the Democrats this time, and so they're extremely torn.
This one woman has four, I think, candidate lawn signs. And she literally alternates putting them out in her lawn because she's so torn. She doesn't know who to go for.
And, honestly, I don't know what it would take for people to change their minds and lock into a position, except for the potential that raising attacks brings. Barack Obama and others effectively criticized Clinton on some issues like the driver's licensing issue and a couple of other things. And I think that that's taken a toll.
RAY SUAREZ: OK. Rekha Basu, Ron Elving, thank you both.
REKHA BASU: Thank you.