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A Week Before Caucuses, Iowa Republicans Taking Final Measure of Candidates

December 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Republican presidential candidates in Iowa are all smiles this week, shaking hands and corralling votes in anticipation of the upcoming Caucuses. Judy Woodruff discusses the GOP hopefuls' final push in the Hawkeye State with state Republican Chairman Matthew Strawn and Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of the Republican presidential candidates descended on Iowa today, with just a week to go before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The candidates were all smiles and handshakes as they crisscrossed Iowa trying to corral every available vote. On a bus tour of the state, Texas Governor Rick Perry talked up his achievements, as he tried to regain lost ground.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: We passed record tort reform. I balanced six state budgets as the governor of the state of Texas. And we worked to create the best job creation environment in America.

I’m a social conservative who has defended traditional marriage and protected the unborn children, including signing a budget that defunded Planned Parenthood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Bachmann was making ten stops on her own bus tour of the state. The Minnesota congresswoman was using the week in a last attempt for momentum. She’s dropped from the spotlight since winning the Iowa straw poll back in August. Newt Gingrich also had his moment as front-runner in Iowa, but has since fallen back.

In Dubuque today, he played up his record as speaker of the House in the 1990s, dealing with then-President Clinton.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): I was effective. I actually got the deal done. So, it wasn’t 112 percent pure, but it worked. And we got a liberal Democrat to sign welfare reform. We got a liberal Democrat to sign tax cuts. We got a liberal Democrat to sign four consecutive balanced budgets. Now, I think that’s pretty effective conservatism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The man now sharing the lead in Iowa is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. He had no campaign events today, but his strong organization may give him a leg up in next week’s caucuses.

The other leader in Iowa polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, he spent most of the day in New Hampshire, where he’s well out front of his rivals, before leaving for the Hawkeye State and another push there.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I don’t have any expectations to set for you. I don’t really jump into the expectations game. But I’m hoping to do well in every state in the nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, as the Republicans traverse the Iowa countryside, their commercials are racing ahead of them.

NARRATOR: Congressmen get $174,000 a year, and you get the bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to The Des Moines Register, Rick Perry has spent almost $2.9 million on ads in Iowa this month…

NARRATOR: Gingrich — Newt has a ton of baggage. He was fined…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … with a Romney super PAC close behind. Gingrich is on the low end. His campaign has managed to put up less than $500,000 in December ads.

Altogether, the GOP field and its political action committees have made more than $10 million in TV and radio buys this month alone.

We turn now to two people on the ground in the Hawkeye State, state Republican Party chairman Matthew Strawn, and O. Kay Henderson. She’s the news director of Radio Iowa, a statewide news network. She’s been covering Iowa politics for more than 25 years.

And we thank you both.

And, Matt Strawn, I’m going to start with you.

We keep hearing about how many undecided Republicans there are in the state. And my question is, why is that? They’ve had a year or more to get to know these candidates. What’s going on?

MATTHEW STRAWN, Iowa Republican Party chairman: Well, I think, first and foremost, Iowa Republicans aren’t making this decision in a vacuum.

We understand what four more years of Barack Obama’s policies mean to America. So we understand what is at stake and we understand the decision we make on Jan. 3 extends far beyond the borders of just our state here in the Midwest. So, we want to make sure we get the decision right. And we want to I guess really take that final measure of each of these candidates as they come to the state.

And there’s been no question the retail aspect of this hasn’t been as robust in years past, so many Iowa activists are just getting that opportunity now in the closing week to look a candidate in the eye and ask them that tough question that the Iowa caucus process is known for.

But I’m sure at the end of the day, Iowa caucus-goers are going to do what they always do. And once they have made that personal connection with a candidate, they’re going to probably stand up for that candidate on the night of Jan. 3.

JUDY WOODRUFF: O. Kay Henderson, how do you explain this high number of undecideds at this late hour?

O. KAY HENDERSON, Radio Iowa: Well, there have been a multitude of candidate debates that have been well-watched. And it’s been sort of like fruit basket upset, in that a candidate would catch fire based on a performance in a debate, people would like that candidate for a while, and then, as they learned more about the baggage of that candidate, the candidate fell in the polls.

So there’s that component. The other thing I think at work here is that conservatives have a group of candidates from which to choose. There was no single conservative candidate around which they could coalesce. And at this late juncture, they still haven’t made a decision about which of those candidates to support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kay Henderson, you were also telling us that you’ve been surprised at the small size of many of the crowds. What have you seen out there on the trail?

O. KAY HENDERSON: That has been one of the interesting things about this caucus season. There were large crowds at obviously the Ames straw poll hosted by the Iowa Republican Party.

But at a Michele Bachmann event this morning held in a very small venue, there were just a handful of people. The candidate who is garnering the largest crowds is Ron Paul, basically because he has the best ground game on Iowa and is able to get out the message that he will be in the state.

So that’s been a little surprising, because it doesn’t seem to correlate with the idea that Republicans are hungry to win back the White House, because they’re not turning out in droves to see all of these candidates that they could see and shake hands with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Matt Strawn, how do you explain the smaller crowds?

MATTHEW STRAWN: Well, you know, what’s interesting, Judy, as Kay knows, here on the ground in Iowa, there’s been a tremendous Republican insurgence in this state over the last two years, where we have had 33 straight months of Republican voter registration gains.

We had the second largest attendance in the history of the Ames straw poll just this past August. So there’s tremendous energy and enthusiasm among Republicans statewide. And I think part what you see on the ground is the fact that the candidates are just now doing some of those things that traditionally were done weeks and maybe months prior, in prior caucus seasons, with statewide bus tours and things of that nature.

So, I think, as Iowans are getting back home following a Christmas weekend, they’re going to start turning out at these events and really start tuning in to who they’re going to support on Jan. 3.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so…

O. KAY HENDERSON: It’s sort of like maybe…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

O. KAY HENDERSON: It’s sort of like — it’s sort of like maybe cramming for the test right before you take the final.

That’s a bit what these bus tours are like, because, as Mr. Strawn explained, that’s the kind of campaigning that heretofore we had seen in the summer months in Iowa. And now these candidates are doing this in the final days of the campaign, rather than months ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matt Strawn, I wanted to quickly ask you what you do expect in the way of turnout. I guess, in 2008, what, 118,000 Republicans turned out, give or take. What are you looking at next week?

MATTHEW STRAWN: Yes, correct. That 2008 number was an all-time high for Republican caucus turnout.

And, of course, as any caucus observer knows, there’s an incredible amount of variables that go into what turnout may be, ranging from what the weather is to how many first-time caucus-goers turn out. So I’m loath to predict a number. So I won’t do that.

But what I can tell you, given that Republican resurgence in this state and the fact that it’s going to be the first time anywhere in the country a citizen has an opportunity to cast a vote to start the process to replace Barack Obama, I expect that there’s going to be considerable enthusiasm. And so long as we have good weather, I expect it will be a robust night for Iowa Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you won’t say over or under what it was last time?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEW STRAWN: I will not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay.

MATTHEW STRAWN: I will let the Iowa voters decide with their turnout on Jan. 3.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kay Henderson, what do you think the main factors are on the minds of these Republicans as they plan to go to these caucuses next Tuesday night? Is it issues? Is it the candidates themselves? What is it?

O. KAY HENDERSON: I think, when folks go into those precinct meeting rooms, I think the key question in their mind is, which candidate is best suited to go against Barack Obama in the general election?

I think a subplot to this is Republicans want someone to carry their anger about what is happening in the economy, what’s happening with the country and their anger at the Obama presidency. So, I think those two things are uppermost in the minds of Republicans.

That’s why I think you haven’t seen some of the social issues be as hotly debated on the campaign trail as they may have been in the past, because those economic issues, anger issues, if you will, and the idea that Republicans want to be positioned to win back the White House are the predominant factors weighing on the minds of Iowa Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Matt Strawn, I want to ask you about that as well, because what we see when we look at the economy in Iowa, the reports are that your unemployment rate, one of the best in the country. The New York Times said last week you’ve got a robust agricultural sector, foreclosure — low foreclosure rate.

Is the economy the cutting-edge issue in Iowa that it is in the rest of the country for Republicans?

MATTHEW STRAWN: Well, as a farm boy from eastern Iowa, I can absolutely tell you that the egg economy has kept Iowa booming for the most part.

At a time when the rest of the nation’s relatively hurting, we have an unemployment rate that is just below 6 percent. But what you see in — not just in polls, but in talking to Iowans, we share the same concerns that Americans do nationally with what we see happening in Washington.

We see a $15 trillion debt that has to be repaid. We see a president that’s punting on addressing long-term looming financial obligations like Social Security and Medicare. So, we actually are looking for leadership on those economic, financial issues.

And I think that explains — let me give you one example. Going into the straw poll this August, both Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, who finished in the top two spots, their introductory ads to Iowa Republicans were their opposition to the debt ceiling. And I think you’ve seen issues related to the economy and to controlling spending and to really getting Washington to shrink in size driving the debate in a way that you haven’t seen in perhaps past Iowa caucuses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything, quickly, you would add to that, Kay Henderson, about Iowa’s sitting healthier, anyway, than the rest of the country when it comes to the economy?

O. KAY HENDERSON: It is indeed because of the agricultural sector, I think, that Iowa is seeing a good economic outlook.

And farmers are a pessimistic lot. So, having farmers be a little bit more optimistic about things does affect the way that the culture reacts to news and events here in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there. We thank you both. And we look forward to seeing you in person in just a couple of days.

Kay Henderson, Matt Strawn, thank you both.

MATTHEW STRAWN: Thanks, Judy.

O. KAY HENDERSON: Thank you.