MS. IFILL: The Republican president campaign got its jumpstart here this week in Iowa, but the state pay rollercoaster had nothing on Wall Street. We’ll talk about the story from here and from there, tonight on “Washington Week.”
It must be getting serious.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress. I’m very proud of that record.
GOV. TIM PAWLENTY: She said she’s got a titanium spine. It’s not her spine we’re worried about. It’s her record of results.
MS. IFILL: The candidates are sharpening their attacks.
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY: I predict in this place, on this day, in November of 2012, President Obama will not carry the state of Iowa.
MS. IFILL: Leading up to the Iowa straw poll, the jockeying has begun. We see who will struggle and who will survive.
FMR. GOV. JON HUNTSMAN: If you want to know what I’m going to do, I’m going to do exactly what I did as governor. It’s called leadership.
MS. IFILL: Hello from Iowa, the summer kickoff to voting in the first caucus state next January. Tomorrow there’s a straw poll. Last night there was a debate. In between, we’re here at the Iowa State Fair with Dan Balz from the “Washington Post,” who’s been here with me all week trying to figure all of this out.
So Dan, as you’ve been here, what’s been the most amazing thing you’ve seen?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, the debate, on Thursday night, was such a contrast to what we saw two months ago in New Hampshire. That was a sleepy debate. This was an eruption. We’ve been waiting for this race to kind of heat up, to get people engaged. And we saw that Thursday night. Almost everybody in the group had something to prove and they were going at one another in a way we have not seen up to now.
MS. IFILL: Who needed to break out, was there someone who came with more to prove?
MR. BALZ: Well, Governor Pawlenty from Minnesota clearly needs all the help he can get. His campaign has been struggling. The straw poll will be a big moment for him and I think he needed to take on Congresswoman Bachmann because she’s got more momentum. And so he came in with something to prove, but there were others, too. Governor Huntsman wanted to make an impression in his first debate. Newt Gingrich wanted to erase the idea that his campaign was totally floundering. And Governor Romney was able to kind of float mostly above the fray as he did in the previous debate.
MS. IFILL: So did anybody pull it off, anybody who really wanted to do it pull it off?
MR. BALZ: Well, I’m not sure there were any clear winners other than perhaps Governor Romney again because everyone else was focused on somebody else.
MS. IFILL: Didn’t hurt himself.
MR. BALZ: He did not hurt himself in the list, I don’t think, but he’s sitting there, worrying about Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who’s going to get in on Saturday.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. It’s not like we didn’t know that he was seriously considering this, but his timing seems suspicious.
MR. BALZ: Well, his timing is exquisite, if you will. I mean he made it clear on the day of the debate that he was going to announce on Saturday, just as the speakers begin to give their speeches in Ames on Saturday, he’ll be in South Carolina, drawing all the attention away, and then, on Sunday, after a quick trip to New Hampshire, he’ll be here in Iowa for a couple of days of campaigning.
MS. IFILL: Who is – we’ve been sitting here at the State Fair. We’re right across from what they call the soap box, where all the candidates show up and talk to voters, and they’ve been doing it all week long. We’ve seen Sarah Palin here today. Michele Bachmann is across the street. Who is really touching the core with Iowa voters, can you tell?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think you have to say that it’s Michele Bachmann. She – she got into this race late and immediately zoomed to either the top or near the top of the polls. She’s done very well here. This is a Republican electorate that likes fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. She’s tapped into the tea party. She’s tapped into evangelicals. She knows Iowa. She’s an Iowa native and she’s played that card hard. So that’s one of the reasons that Governor Pawlenty is worried. I mean, both of them need a victory in the Iowa caucuses to really establish themselves next year, and one of them is going to be disappointed tomorrow.
MS. IFILL: You mentioned the social conservatives and the economic conservatives. A lot of Iowans say that we pay too much attention – people like you and me – to the social conservatives. Who wins the day, besides the band, who wins the day in contests like this?
MR. BALZ: Well, in the past, the social conservatives have been a critical element. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses four years ago on the strength of his support from the social conservative part of the party. But a lot of those folks today are just as worried about economic issues as some of the social issues. So –
MS. IFILL: Especially after the week we’ve just had.
MR. BALZ: Right. I mean, we have a different environment this time than we’ve had in the past, so it’s not as clear cut.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about expectations for the straw poll and whether the straw poll matters. There’s a lot of mixed debate about that, whether the straw poll is really that important or whether it’s just a showcase for the most committed, most engaged voters.
MR. BALZ: Well, you can argue that the straw poll has kind of passed its prime. Here you have a case in which the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is not actively competing. Rick Perry, who is very high in the polls, even though he’s not an official candidate, will be elsewhere. And you have some of the people who are well down in the polls actually competing. So what comes out of this? I mean, the other – the other reality of the straw poll, Gwen, is that somebody who doesn’t do as well as they are expected to do could find themselves threatened with being driven out of the race. And it’s unclear whether an event like this should have that kind of power.
MS. IFILL: Well, and there are people like Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate, who have a lot of passionate supporters in a state like Iowa, who could turn things upside down.
MR. BALZ: Certainly Ron Paul could. I mean, there’s every expectation that Ron Paul will be in the hunt to lead in the straw poll on Saturday. As you say, his followers are very passionate. He has a great record in straw polls because it’s a small group of people who turn out. Now, in Ames, I mean, the numbers of people are significantly larger than in some of the straw polls elsewhere. There were 14,000 last time and there were 23,000 the time before. So it’s a different animal. But Herman Cain has support in this state and Rick Santorum – I mean, we can’t overlook Rick Santorum. He’s got support.
MS. IFILL: He’s been to 68 counties I think he said in the last few weeks.
MR. BALZ: He said that in the debate and he has been all over the state in the last few weeks.
MS. IFILL: How many of these have you been to, have you covered?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think the first straw poll I attended was probably the 1990 – may have been 1988 or even 1987.
MS. IFILL: So you’ve been around the block on these a couple of times.
MR. BALZ: I have been to Ames for a number of these.
MS. IFILL: Does this feel different?
MR. BALZ: Well, it does feel different. I think that the – I think the combination of the debate on Thursday night and the straw poll and the state fair, obviously, opening right in the middle of that, has drawn a bigger crowd of all of us, and so the attention to this event is somewhat or significantly higher than we’ve seen in the past.
MS. IFILL: Dan, as always, thank you so much.