GWEN IFILL: After a quiet holiday weekend, Republican presidential candidates prepared to descend on Iowa in earnest this week in a flurry of bus touring, pheasant hunting, and endorsement courting.
For the latest on the Republican field’s final push toward the Jan. 3 caucuses, we are joined by 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, reporting tonight from Iowa.
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Hey.
GWEN IFILL: So, let’s go back four years ago. Mitt Romney came in second to Mike Huckabee. This year, he said he wasn’t going to compete in Iowa at all. And how’s he doing?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, he stayed away for a while, but he is all-in now. He is going to show up in the state starting tomorrow night, do four days here. He’s bringing his wife, three of his kids, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, John Thune from neighboring South Dakota.
It’s clear to me that — that Mitt Romney has decided he has a shot at winning Iowa this time, winning Iowa, then presumably winning New Hampshire and being an unstoppable force to the nomination.
GWEN IFILL: Stu, you know, the word out of Iowa, the cliche, a political cliche, is organization is all that counts. So, is that what is happening here? Is Mitt Romney incredibly organized?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, he does have organization from four years ago. But, remember, as you pointed out, Gwen, he didn’t initially decide to compete here. And he was going to bypass it because he knew there was a ceiling for him in this kind of state with so many social conservatives and evangelicals.
But I think it’s really more a combination of events. Nobody else has emerged as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. And so, while four years ago, he came in second with 25 percent of support of the caucuses, there’s a chance now that he could get again the same 25 percent, but this time win the caucuses. And it would create a very different dynamic.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, last week, when we talked, we were talking about Gingrich’s big rise. Is he still rising in Iowa? And is he still keeping his pledge not to go negative on other candidates?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, it’s very hard when a candidate is being attacked to not be negative going back.
And we saw his campaign hit back against Mitt Romney on the question of who’s conservative and whether — whether Romney has the credentials of a conservative businessman. So, he — but he hasn’t unleashed the kind of negative TV ads that we’ve seen angled against him, partly because I suspect he doesn’t have the money to finance them.
You know, Gingrich has definitely come down. Who knows exactly where they stand now. There was an ARG poll out a couple days ago, the latest one, that showed essentially a tie in Iowa between Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But, clearly, he’s fallen from the point where he was the front-runner nationally and in Iowa. And then, I think that’s where Romney sees his opening.
GWEN IFILL: Stu, let’s talk about the organization piece when it comes to Newt Gingrich, because he didn’t even manage to get on the ballot in the state where he currently lives right now, Virginia, last week.
Does that say something about his campaign? Or does it tell us more about Virginia?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think some of each. Gingrich was not the only Republican to fail to get on the ballot in Virginia.
In fact, it’s just Ron Paul and Mitt Romney there, so the others had problems, too. Virginia has a burdensome requirement in terms of statewide signatures, but also signatures in individual congressional districts. But I think you’d have to say that Newt’s failure to get on the ballot in Virginia is at least an embarrassment, and, more than that, it’s a reflection of the fact that he hasn’t built an organization.
And, remember, early on, you can focus just on Iowa and maybe just on New Hampshire. But, after that, they start coming in flurries. And if you have six, eight contests, primaries and caucuses on an individual day, you need some organization. You need a depth of a campaign that Newt Gingrich doesn’t have.
So I think what happened to him in Virginia reflects a broader problem that he has.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, let’s turn to Ron Paul, who is the third of the cluster of the three at the top, at least in the most recent polls.
He has also come under some new scrutiny, which befits the coming of a new front-runner or an almost front-runner. And it’s about work that he did or that was published under his name in newsletters maybe a couple decades ago which is widely seen as being anti-religious, anti-racially tinged.
How is that resonating on the ground in Iowa?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, Ron Paul has the most dedicated supporters of anybody in the field, especially young people drawn to his libertarian message.
I don’t think those voters get shaken by these stories that look into these racist and offensive writings in Ron Paul’s name from the 1990s. But I think it probably puts a cap on his head. It probably makes it hard for him to expand his universe to some of these undecided voters.
We know that half or more of the voters in Iowa continue to say they could change their mind by Jan. 3. I think it makes it’s harder for him to expand his universe of support.
GWEN IFILL: You seeing it the same way?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I agree. I don’t think it will shake the people who are dedicated Ron Paul supporters. They have bought into his message and who he is. And they believe he is a trustworthy, honest, honorable, conservative, libertarian person.
But I think it makes it more difficult for his message to get out — to get to the larger Republican audience.
GWEN IFILL: Keeping in mind that Jon Huntsman is not competing in Iowa, of the other three who are now fighting for — depending on how you look at it — second, third or fourth place, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, who would you say is in the best position right now, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think Bachmann is in the least best position right now.
So it appears to be — there’s considerable buzz about Santorum and a possible key endorsement he might be able to get from Steve King over the next few days. We don’t know if that will happen or not. Rick Perry continues to make a major commitment. He’s got a new ad up beating up on everybody who is or was ever a member of Congress and running against Congress.
Those two seem to be the people who may have some momentum. But it’s kind of reading the tea leaves.
GWEN IFILL: That’s current or past members of Congress, but not Mitt Romney in that mix.
Who would you say of those three stands the best chance right now, Susan?
SUSAN PAGE: I say the fact that we’re talking about all three of them is still being in the mix is great news for Mitt Romney.
He really — he needed all these people to stay in the race and to continue to get a share of the vote, because that meant, as Stu said, he could be in a position to win in Iowa with just about the same proportion of the vote he got last time.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, final question.
I’m curious whether, looking back over 2011, you have had any occasion to think to yourself, boy, this was quite a political year or this wasn’t much of a political year. What’s your sense of it?
SUSAN PAGE: Hey, we’ve seen these candidates come out of nowhere, go to the top of the field and then crash and burn.
I was down in Orlando for the Florida straw poll. There was a debate the night before. Going into the night, Rick Perry was the hot flavor. He was coming with a big storm. He didn’t perform very well in that debate. You could feel the air going out of his tires when the debate was over.
The next morning, when the straw poll came up, you could see voters coming in, didn’t know who they wanted to support. Herman Cain was there talking to them. I heard a lot of voters say, hey, Herman Cain, he seems like a guy with a lot of ideas.
And that was where we saw his candidacy get inflated. This is all in the space of about 12 hours.
GWEN IFILL: This is true. This has been a roller coaster.
STUART ROTHENBERG: There’s always uncertainty, as you know, going into the caucuses, because it’s very hard to poll these people and figure out who is going to participate and who they’re going to support.
But this has been absolutely nuts, this roller coaster of up and down, who’s today, who’s tomorrow? The process is nothing like I have seen before. Some of it has to do with the debates. And some of it has to do with the candidates. But this is a very, very fickle, unhappy electorate.
And they’re going to have to settle on somebody in Iowa.
GWEN IFILL: And there actually is going to be voting in a week. That’s a relief.
GWEN IFILL: Stu Rothenberg, Susan Page, stay warm out there in Iowa. Thank you both.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.
SUSAN PAGE: Thanks, Gwen.