RAY SUAREZ: Jan. 3 loomed ever larger on the Republican presidential calendar today, the date of the Iowa caucuses. Six of the seven hopefuls campaigned in the state, some hoping for a final surge to victory, others hoping just to survive.
The home stretch in Iowa was crowded with candidates today, racing from one event to the next, pressing the flesh, pulling out all the stops.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Good morning. How are you this morning?
RAY SUAREZ: New polls show Mitt Romney leading or tied for the lead. Romney had once played down Iowa, but no more. He rolled out a minute-long TV ad today extolling the spirit of enterprise.
MITT ROMNEY: The American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense. And I intend to make it, because I have lived it.
RAY SUAREZ: The former Massachusetts governor played up the same theme in campaign stops today, here in Cedar Falls.
MITT ROMNEY: I want America to remain American. I want us to have good jobs and an opportunity society. And the principles that made America great in the past are the principles, I believe, that will keep our economy strong in the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Texas Congressman Ron Paul was drawing big crowds and running second or even tied with Romney for the lead.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: This is what the dramatic difference is between now and even four years ago. The people know that we have a serious economic problem to deal with. And most people now -- I believe the statistics and the polling shows that 70 percent of the American people are now saying, enough is enough.
RAY SUAREZ: He got another boost overnight, when Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorenson endorsed him. Sorenson had been state chairman for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
KENT SORENSON (R), Iowa state senator: In 2010, when I was running for the state Senate, Congressman Paul came and actually did three separate events for me. And I felt like that he was by my side when I had a tough race. Now it's my duty to be by his side when he has an opportunity and he's in a tough, tough race himself.
RAY SUAREZ: Bachmann insisted she's staying in the race, despite lagging numbers. And her campaign claimed Sorensen was paid a large sum of money to defect, a claim Ron Paul denied.
Meanwhile, things were looking up for Rick Santorum, who tripled his support in the new polls. The former Pennsylvania senator was looking to seize on the momentum, starting on NBC's "Today Show."
RICK SANTORUM (R): This has been different than everybody else that's sort of risen in this race, that they haven't been tested. And we have. And people know that there's authenticity here, that they can trust me, that what I say that I'm going to do is what I have done in the past.
RAY SUAREZ: But while Santorum was rising, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared to be in freefall, down 20 points from a few weeks back.
In Sioux City today, he stayed away from attacks on rival Republicans, and focused instead on President Obama.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): He's ran on "Yes, we can." His new slogan is going to be "why we couldn't." I believe we can design a contract with America that will be enormously powerful. We can run as a team. We can wage a campaign in which, by October, it is virtually impossible to defend Obama.
RAY SUAREZ: Texas Gov. Rick Perry was, likewise, well back in the field. And this morning in Washington, Iowa, he was peppered with questions about whether he might quit after the caucuses.
QUESTION: Fifth place good enough to keep it going?
GOV. RICK PERRY: We're going on.
QUESTION: Regardless of the outcome?
GOV. RICK PERRY: We're going on, pressing on.
RAY SUAREZ: One candidate shunned Iowa. Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor, defended his decision to focus entirely on New Hampshire. "They pick corn in Iowa," he said. "They actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire."
JEFFREY BROWN: So that's where things stand in Iowa today, but why should we care? And what does Iowa's first-in-the-nation vote tell us anyway?
We explore that now with historian Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Jeff Stein, vice chair of the board of trustees for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Now, Richard, one of my colleagues called you today, and you said, almost without being prompted, "I'm sick of Iowa."
JEFFREY BROWN: Come and tell us about this.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: Let me draw a very important distinction between Iowa, a place I lived very happily for six years and for whose people I have great affection, and the over-reported, overanalyzed, over-interpreted Kabuki Theater that is the -- quote -- "Iowa caucus."
JEFFREY BROWN: Why is it Kabuki Theater?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, gosh, we have the Ames straw poll, which we're told is the caucus before the caucus. And we're supposed to pay a lot of attention to the Ames straw poll. And guess what? Michele Bachmann won the poll, and her campaign, it's been downhill ever since.
A lot of this is the media. A lot of this is the amount of money that has poured into the state. Someone has to go first. And Iowa is -- you know, is entitled as anyone. Ultimately, it's unrepresentative because of the nature of the caucus, as opposed to a primary election, and because - it's further unrepresentative because within that caucus turnout, there is a disproportionate emphasis given to social conservatives, and particularly to evangelical voters.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me get Jeff Stein in here from Iowa.
You can explain to us why - what's the case for Iowa mattering? And Richard just laid out some of the things we have heard often, particularly the lack of it being representative of the rest of the country.
JEFF STEIN, State Historical Society of Iowa: Well, I think it's very representative of rank-and-file America.
We have a very educated population. The people in Iowa take this job, this responsibility very seriously. You're going to have about 600,000 registered Republicans in Iowa at the time of the caucus. And, granted, only about 20 percent of them will show up. But those are the most interested partisans.
And what we're talking about here is a partisan nominating process. The Democrats will be meeting that night as well. And so, as each party strives to nominate its choice, I think it works just as well, and actually better if you care about a strong partisan system, than a wide-open primary, where, for example, a week after Iowa, in New Hampshire, all you have to do is be a registered voter and show up and take whatever ballot you want.
It's a purer process, because the Republicans will meet with Republicans. Democrats meet with Democrats. And, in Iowa, there are more independents than either Republicans or Democrats. So, while it may be a narrow slice, it is a very representative slice of what it is purported to be, a partisan nominating process.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
Okay, Richard, so it is what it is, he is saying. It is a partisan process, and it is that small face-to-face politics that you often don't get.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Sure. The word he used was purist, and I could not agree more.
It is -- it's all about purity. It's about winnowing out people who are not -- who don't meet your ideological standard.
JEFFREY BROWN: You use pure in not quite the same way as he's using it.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: All you need to know, in 2000, Alan Keyes got 15 percent of the caucus vote. Gary Bauer got almost 10 percent of the caucus vote.
Iowa traditionally has been skewered toward the extremes of both parties. And at a time when lots of Americans feel disenfranchised by the political process, they look at this, and they see this as, in many ways, an example of what contributes to their frustration, the purists, the ideological hard-liners, the true believers, the angry electorate.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Stein, that's one of the charges, that this actually skewers and hurts our politics by the way it's set up.
JEFF STEIN: Well, I concur with the earlier comment that it is how it's interpreted in terms of how we look at it from a media standpoint.
Whoever is first is going to be over-reported, I think. I think what we have to look at is that Iowa is one step in a much longer game, where New Hampshire has a very different way, South Carolina, Florida. And I think they all work together toward the nomination process.
If you simply look at the Iowa results and take them too far, that's inappropriate. That's misreporting. But I think we also need to note that as we sit here today, the most recent poll has the most moderate candidate, Mitt Romney, in first place. And I have said for a long time I think there are a number of more moderate Republicans who you may not hear much from in the months leading up to the caucus, but who intend to show up on Jan. 3. And I think you're starting to see that in the polling now.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Richard, that goes back in part to where you started, that you think this is just part of the problem -- maybe even the main problem -- is, it's over-interpreted by...
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, sure, absolutely.
JEFFREY BROWN: ... by the media.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Again, I mean Iowa -- I don't mean to pick on Iowa, per se. But I will tell you there is one more reason to look askance at all of this.
And that is, there is no shortage of people in the media and some in Iowa who will be perfectly prepared on Wednesday morning to say that the whole caucus was irrelevant if Ron Paul wins.
JEFFREY BROWN: They will just say, never mind.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Precisely.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that tells you?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Or to a lesser degree in Rick Santorum, for example, who appears to be surging at the end, were to pull out an upset victory.
And, again, it goes to the heart, less of whatever flaws there may be in the process as it plays out, than in the way that the media chooses to interpret it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Stein, what I mean -- is it possible that on Wednesday we wake up and people there and people back here in Washington are saying, never mind, let's -- now we will move on? Of course, we will move on to New Hampshire, right?
JEFF STEIN: Well, the concept that the Republican electorate in Iowa is angry, I think is a misreading.
I think that the fact that half the people in Iowa who are going to show up on Jan. 3 don't yet know for sure who they are going to vote for is not because they can't find anyone they're enthusiastic about. It's because they very much want to defeat an incumbent in the fall, and they want to make sure they do it right.
I think that, if Ron Paul wins, there's going to be the temptation nationally to just -- just dismiss it. And I think that's misreading the reason for the voting. And I don't think it's anger. I think it's dissatisfaction with how things are running. And, to a very large degree, it's a protest vote.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, so just in our last minute here, Richard -- and I will give Jeff Stein a chance, too -- how do you want to leave the viewers here? Does Iowa matter or not?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Sure Iowa matters. Iowa matters for a number of reasons.
If nothing else, Iowa, as has been said many times, winnows the field. There is no way that these six candidates are all going to credibly go on to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
JEFFREY BROWN: But don't overdo it. Don't over-interpret it.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Let the electorate interpret the results.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Stein?
JEFF STEIN: I totally agree. You have to take Iowa in context, although it is very important. A couple of candidates, Bachmann and Santorum principally, have put all their eggs in the Iowa basket.
And so, literally, on the morning after, the future of their campaigns will be told. But, generally, we just need to sit back and realize this is the first step in a long marathon.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeff Stein, Richard Norton Smith, thanks so much.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You bet.
JEFF STEIN: Thank you.