GWEN IFILL: A whirlwind few days in Iowa has launched campaign 2012 into high gear for now. The Republican field has effectively split into two tiers, with three candidates emerging as the top contenders to challenge President Obama.
CROWD: Here we go, T-Paw! Here we go!
GWEN IFILL: Iowa's Ames Straw Poll weekend came complete with all the normal trappings of a full-blown red, white and blue campaign: country music, corn-on-the-cob and plenty of games for the kids, as Michele Bachmann, the Iowa-born congresswoman from Minnesota, claimed the first big victory of her seven-week-old campaign.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: If we stick together in this huge movement -- fiscal conservatives, national security conservatives, social conservatives and the Tea Party movement -- there is no doubt in my mind we are the team that can't be beat for 2012.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: But Bachmann's victory lap was almost immediately upstaged by the arrival in the state and in the race of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. At a Republican Party dinner in Waterloo last night, Perry worked the crowd as if he had been in the race for far more than just 24 hours.
Perry, who didn't compete in Saturday's straw poll, explained his late entrance into the race by comparing it to the 16 years it took to marry his wife.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: Sometimes, it kind of takes me awhile to get into something, like this presidential race. But let me tell you, when I'm in, I'm in all the way.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: The Republican contest to unseat President Obama took more than one dramatic turn over the weekend. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who came in third in the straw poll, far behind Bachmann and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, dropped out hours later.
TIM PAWLENTY, (R) former presidential candidate: I think the measure of us in this phase was, really, can you get some lift out of Ames to get the ante, if you will, to get to the next round? And that didn't happen, unfortunately. I wish it would have. It didn't happen.
GWEN IFILL: As the president's approval ratings continue to slide, GOP hopefuls are sharpening their attacks.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: People feel it now, the fire. They recognize that Obama can be beat. And they want to make sure that we don't have just the other team wearing the other jersey. They want to make sure that they have a champion, a fighter, somebody who's going to stand up and have guts.
GOV. RICK PERRY: The president of the United States has a pen. It's called a veto pen.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GOV. RICK PERRY: And I will use it until the ink runs out, if that's what it takes to get the message we're not spending all the money.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Perry's entry into the race sets up a defining moment for the Republican Party. Will they be able to defeat a weakened president by tapping into Tea Party energy? The choice is on in this battleground state, which President Obama won in 2008, but may be up for grabs in 2012.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: It's wonderful to be here. Thanks so much.
GWEN IFILL: Early front-runner Mitt Romney skipped the straw poll this year, even though he won it four years ago.
MITT ROMNEY: You will see me plenty in Iowa. And I will be participating in the Iowa caucus process, hoping to win the delegates that I would like to have to win the nomination. And I will be, if I'm the nominee, of course, aggressively campaigning. Iowa will be a swing state.
GWEN IFILL: Mike Huckabee came in second in that 2007 straw poll and won the 2008 caucuses. But, this time around, he appeared as entertainer, not candidate. The former Arkansas governor said the ground is shifting for Republicans this year.
MIKE HUCKABEE, (R) former Arkansas governor: I do think that there is an opportunity for unifying the conservative movement and tying all those issues together. And the candidate who can do that, that can show how these are integrated issues, not isolated, is probably going to be the best candidate to go against Obama.
GWEN IFILL: Mary Howard, who lost her job at the University of Iowa and is in danger of losing her home, is the type of Republican voter the candidates hope to attract.
So, for you, the economy trumps social issues?
MARY HOWARD, Republican voter: Right now, sure, because -- yes, yes. Right now, we need results. And sometimes you have to compromise to get results. And I think Obama has done that to a certain extent, but -- but jobs aren't coming back, and we have got to...
GWEN IFILL: Do something different.
MARY HOWARD: ... deal with that.
GWEN IFILL: Bachmann gears her appeal to social conservatives, but is also emphasizing her position on economic issues, like the debt ceiling compromise, which she opposed.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: They want someone who means what they say and say what they mean. And that's what I have been doing in Washington. I have been at the tip of the spear on issue after issue, whether it was the TARP bailout, the $750 billion bailout. And I was at the tip of the spear on Obamacare, fighting against it to make sure it wouldn't come into effect.
GWEN IFILL: Perry also says he can do a better job of turning the economy around.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Two of the most important issues of our time is jobs and debt. In the state of Texas in 2009 until currently, 40 percent of all the jobs created in America were created in the state of Texas.
GWEN IFILL: Iowa pollster Ann Selzer credits the Tea Party movement for crystallizing issues for the Republican field.
ANN SELZER, Iowa pollster: I think that the Tea Party has really blended it. It used to be that the social conservatives were -- that's all they wanted to talk about, and the fiscal people were left without a country. And now the Tea Party has really helped meld those two together. So, it will be interesting to see how that develops.
GWEN IFILL: Ann Rosenthal, an Iowa Republican who describes herself as a social conservative, listened to both Bachmann and Perry last night.
ANN ROSENTHAL, Iowa Republican: We're never going to find a perfect candidate. You know, there's always going to be something about a person that people don't like. And the important thing is, is for Republicans to get behind somebody that carries the biggest message on the economy.
GWEN IFILL: Straw poll voters, among the most enthusiastic and engaged activists at this early stage, said that's what they're looking for, too.
Tell me who you voted for.
BARB BELLINGER, Iowa: Michele Bachmann.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me why.
BARB BELLINGER: I don't really know that she will really be the candidate, but I voted for her because I want her ideas to be very strong, and so, whoever does get the nomination will know that there's a big group of Republicans who would like to see her ideas brought forth.
MITT ROMNEY: Thanks, you guys. Great to be with you.
Those ideas, Republicans hope, will provide the key to defeating an incumbent president for the first time in two decades.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama responded today by hitting the road for a series of campaign-style events. In the process, he also hit back at his challengers.
The president embarked on his three-day bus tour with Republican attacks still echoing from Iowa. His departure came after a Gallup tracking poll on Sunday had his approval at 39 percent, his lowest ever. The rolling three-day average was back up to 41 percent by today. Mr. Obama sought to bolster his support at the first in a series of town halls, starting in the small city of Cannon Falls in southeastern Minnesota.
Without naming any names, he attacked the Republican presidential field for blanket opposition to any new taxes.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I know it's not election season yet, but I just have to mention, you know, that the debate the other party candidates were having the other day, when they were asked to -- to reduce our deficit, reduce our debt, would you be willing to take a deal where it was $5 in spending cuts for every $1 of increased revenues? Who would take it? Everybody said no.
They said, how about 10-1, $10 of cuts for every $1 increase in revenue? Are you saying that none of you would take it?
And everybody raised their hand. None of -- none of them would take it.
Think about that. I mean, that's just not common sense.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also tried to turn around the attacks on his landmark health care legislation, dubbed Obamacare by Republicans.
BARACK OBAMA: I have no problem with folks saying "Obama cares." I do care.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BARACK OBAMA: If the other side wants to be the folks who don't care, that's fine with me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, he acknowledged public frustration over the economy and jobs, but he urged voters to press Congress for action.
BARACK OBAMA: We can get this economy going again. We can put people to work back again. Small businesses can start growing again.
BARACK OBAMA: But I'm going to need your help to make it happen. You've got to send a message to Washington that it's time for the games to stop. It's time to put country first.
JUDY WOODRUFF: From Minnesota, the president traveled on to Iowa. Later this week, he will close his tour of the heartland with a visit to his home state of Illinois.
GWEN IFILL: For more now on how the 2012 campaign is reshaping itself, we turn to NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian.
David, you and I spent the week -- the weekend -- the long weekend in Iowa. And we saw a lot of this red, white and blue campaigning. How is what the president is doing today any different from what we were watching?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, he doesn't have Obama 2012 posters, but that's about the only difference.
The White House is trying to make the point, Gwen, that this is an official event. This is the president as president going out and talking to Americans. But you and I know that's a distinction without a difference. He is a declared presidential candidate. He's raising money every week for his campaign. And his team is supremely focused on November 2012.
They are, of course, short term, focused on the economy as well. And that's what he is keeping the focus of this entire tour. But it's not like he's choosing his spots randomly, right? I mean, he's going through these critical Midwestern battleground states, Minnesota, Iowa.
And Iowa -- and the timing of this is no mistake either. The White House was keenly aware that the Republican candidates would be dominating the Iowa landscape because of the straw poll and that debate. And they wanted to get the president in there to have the counterargument.
GWEN IFILL: Have they started at the White House to look at this top tier that we have identified tonight and said, OK, this one, this one, this one, which one would I rather run against?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I think they would relish the chance to run against Michele Bachmann, because they don't think her appeal is wide enough or deep enough to be a real threat to them in November 2012, especially her appeal with independent candidates, but -- with independent voters.
But, you know, they are just starting to look at Rick Perry. They were not -- they had not done sort of a deep dive on him and getting into his past. You can tell that their talking points on him right now are just a little shallow, so that -- they are learning about Rick Perry as we are all learning about Rick Perry.
But they see Mitt Romney still as a potential threat. And you can just tell. If you look at David Axelrod, the senior adviser to President Obama, if you look at his Twitter feed, there's only one candidate he's been talking about on Twitter for the last couple months. That's Mitt Romney.
Same thing if you look at the outside group Priorities USA run by former Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. They have put up an ad only against one candidate, Mitt Romney. The Obama world is focused on Mitt Romney as a potential threat.
GWEN IFILL: And do they think Mitt Romney, in deciding to forego kind of the hoopla of the straw poll -- he's still going to run in the caucuses -- and focusing on New Hampshire, do they think -- did they have a sense about whether that was a good idea?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, this is where their expertise in how -- a Republican-nominating electorate only goes so far.
They are watching what we are all watching, which is how bloody will this Republican nomination fight get now. As you said, we identified this tier. I think -- talking to White House folks and the campaign folks at the Obama election headquarters in Chicago, Gwen, they're eager to see a prolonged Republican nomination fight.
They would like to see Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann battle it out in Iowa. They would then like to see Rick Perry and Mitt Romney battle it out for a while. But there's a cautionary note about that, because it's the same people, you will remember, from four years ago who said they benefited from a prolonged fight with Hillary Clinton in that nomination process.
Not only did they benefit how to learn to be a better candidate in Barack Obama himself, but they energized the Democratic electorate, which was very helpful to them in November 20 -- in November 2008.
GWEN IFILL: So, is this top three, does it -- does it guarantee a longer fight, this particular group of people, or is it a shorter fight? Is it over a lot faster? Does it begin to shrink more rapidly now?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I -- the length of the fight, I think, is going to largely be determined on these new rules that Republicans are using. They're not using a winner-take-all system for delegates in every one of these contests.
They're going to have this proportional allocation. Therefore, there's the chance that if Michele Bachmann wins Iowa, a potential likelihood, if Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire where he's strongest. If Gov. Perry, now darling of the South, wins South Carolina, you can imagine, if you have that kind of split decision in those early states, that this could drag on for some time.
GWEN IFILL: So, what are the lingering questions? Are there other people who might still get into this?
DAVID CHALIAN: I think we're -- we're seeing the field as it is now.
I do think that was slow forming really did get into focus this weekend. Here are some of the lingering questions I think out there about this top tier. Can Michele Bachmann translate a straw poll win into raising a lot of money and starting to endear herself with the Republican establishment, so that she's not just a sort of social conservative Tea Party Republican, but starts broadening that out?
The Wall Street Journal editorial page was a little questionable about that. And they are sort of the signal of the establishment of the Republican Party.
GWEN IFILL: They were suggesting that other people could still drop in.
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly.
And with Rick Perry, I think the big question is, can he handle the scrutiny that's about to come his way? He's been a governor for 10 years. He's certainly no stranger to scrutiny. But it's a national presidential contest, Gwen. It's a very different ball game.
And when negative stories start coming out, how he responds to that is something we will all be watching. We just don't know. He hasn't been tested that way. And the question for Mitt Romney now is probably the most interesting question out there that remains. Does he now have to get off this perch of above the fray, I'm just going to try to focus on Barack Obama and the economy, not really mix it up with my Republican opponents?
Now that Perry is presenting such a potential serious threat, does he need to get down and start one on one with Rick Perry and start making differentiation to the Republican nominating electorate in a way that he hasn't yet?
GWEN IFILL: Especially if they start attacking him, instead of President Obama, which is what they're doing right now.
DAVID CHALIAN: Precisely.
GWEN IFILL: David Chalian, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.