GOP Hopefuls Warm Up For 2012 Campaign

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The 2012 election may be more than a year away, but already a steady stream of GOP hopefuls have been making customary visits to the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Socially conservative group, the Family Leader, has been hosting potential Republican presidential candidates in a lecture series in Iowa. Host Michel Martin asks the organization's head, Bob Vander Plaats, and U.S. News and World Report columnist, Mary Kate Cary, what it will take for hopefuls to get Republican voters in their corner.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Passover begins on Monday. And for Jewish families around the world, that means they're cleaning up the house, getting rid of their leavened bread and cereal and putting the finishing touches on their Passover menus.

Later in the program, we'll have a Passover primer. Everything you wanted to know about Passover but were afraid to ask. And we'll tell you a 21st century method for getting rid of your leavened bread. Yes, there's an app for that. And we'll also tell you what to do with all that matzoh when you're sick of it. That is later.

But first, even as Republicans and Democrats are still battling over the budget and future spending, they're also drawing battle lines for the 2012 election. We decided to pivot around to see who in the Republican Party is lining up for the privilege of battling President Obama.

Now, in fact, the 2012 presidential campaign is not that far off. In fact, it's actually already begun. The president is putting his re-election team in place. So we decided to look at some of the potential candidates on the Republican side. To do that, we've called on Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. Of course, a frequent contributor to this program.

Also with us is Bob Vander Plaats. He is president and CEO of the Iowa-based organization called the Family Leader, which takes a conservative view of social issues. Iowa, of course, plays an outsized role in the presidential campaign. It's the site of the first caucus that helps winnow the candidates for president. He's with us from Des Moines and Mary Kate is here with us from Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News and World Report): Great to be here.

Mr. BOB VANDER PLAATS (President, Family Leader): Michel, it's a thrill for me to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, I'm so glad you're here.

Now, Mary Kate, I'm going to start with you. It's my understanding that nobody aside from President Obama has actually said, you know, I'm running. But can you run us through a list of the people who are most mentioned now.

Ms. CARY: Yeah. So the top establishment-type candidates, in my mind, that are the ones that are more likely to pull in independent voters and have a shot at things would have to include: Mitt Romney, former governor of Utah; Mitch Daniels, the motorcycle-driving governor of Indiana; Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, former RNC chair; Jon Huntsman, former governor, also, of Utah, that is, who was ambassador to China; Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota; and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas.

However, Huckabee may or may not run. Two other maybe guys, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, actually stopped their contracts with FOX News because they were thinking about running. The fact that Huckabee's still on the air says to me that he's told FOX executives that he's not going to run or they would've taken him off the air.

MARTIN: Interesting.

Ms. CARY: So I kind of think Huckabee's probably not in a...

MARTIN: Probably his ratings were better. I don't know.

Ms. CARY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: But Huckabee's sort of in and out of that list.

MARTIN: You know, there's a lot of people to choose from and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was on the "Piers Morgan Tonight" show. That's on CNN. He was there earlier this weekend. He offered up his assessment of the candidate field.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Governor, Minnesota): Mitt Romney will start out as the frontrunner with the most name ID and money and the like. And then on the other end of the continuum you'll have perhaps Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann or Donald Trump or I don't know, maybe Hulk Hogan will get in the race. Who knows?

MARTIN: So, was he being kind of mean there or was he suggesting that some of these people really are just not serious and they're just playing with us?

Ms. CARY: Well, yeah. There's a second crowd and maybe some of these people are sort of running for vice president. Maybe they're just sort of getting their conservative credentials with that side of the aisle. But the second sort of crowd who are not mentioned so much, probably less popular with independents, would have to include Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, CEO of Godfather Pizza, and of course Donald Trump.

MARTIN: Now, Bob Vander Plaats, you've already hosted a fair number of these candidates. How does that work? Do they call you or do you call them?

Mr. VANDER PLAATS: Well, most of the candidates have actually called me, Michel. And I've either sat down with them and had lunch with them or talked with them. I had Governor Pawlenty and his wife Mary at our home for dinner one night. And what we've decided from the Family Leaders point of view - and just for background, I was Mike Huckabee's state chair in Iowa in 2008 when he won the Iowa causes.

But we pledged to keep a fair level playing field for all the presidential candidates who may want to get into this race. So, we're hosting the presidential lecture series and so far we've hosted Governor Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul's been in, Michele Bachmann's been in. And we have Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich coming in. Mike Huckabee, if he runs, is coming in. Barbour's talked to us, as well as - and we've been in conversation with Mitch Daniels as well.

So these are all people that are coming in and we're allowing them to have exposure to our base of supporters. And our base of supporters have exposure to them because Iowans take their role in this process very, very seriously.

MARTIN: So, and they have to, I would assume, to get an audience with your group, have to assert a strong pro-life position. Are there any other positions that they have to take, too, as a baseline for getting a hearing from your audience?

Mr. VANDER PLAATS: Well, at the Family Leader, we say that we are authentically conservative. There's no doubt the sanctity of human life is very important to us, the foundation of the family - one man, one woman - marriage is important to us, the Constitution. But also, economic policy, debt policy, security policy, energy policy - all those things are very important to us.

We look forward to hosting Donald Trump, if he chooses to enter this race. He said he wants to be in Iowa a lot. We've had some conversation with his people. We're looking forward to, if he wants to get in, to hosting him.

Our goal right now is to have a fair level playing field, find out what are the core values and convictions, what's their vision for the country, and then, finally, can they beat President Obama? And if those three things line up, we think we've got somebody we're supporting on our hands.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the Republican names that are being mentioned as potential presidential candidates. My guests are Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the socially conservative group based in Iowa, the Family Leader. Iowa, of course, serves an outsized role in this process. It's the first caucus in the nation - first in the nation. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, frequent contributor on this program.

Now, Bob, I've got to ask you, and I'm not being mean, I promise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Remind us of why Iowa looms so large given that in recent years Iowa's choice, particularly on the Republican side, has not been the eventual nominee, unlike, say, Ohio. Ronald Reagan came in second there in 1980. Bush 41, George H.W. Bush, Mary Kate's old boss, came third there in 1988. John McCain, the eventual nominee in the last election came in fourth to Mike Huckabee. Can you really say that Iowa is predictive on the Republican side at least? Now, I have to say, on the Democrat side, actually, more...

Ms. CARY: Yeah, a little better record. Yeah.

MARTIN: Little better record on the Democrat side. The person who came in first in Iowa did eventually in a number - most cases recently, become the eventual nominee. But do you see what I'm saying?

Mr. VANDER PLAATS: I do see what you're saying, but I still believe Iowa's extremely important, even on the Republican side, because what Iowa does, it hosts potential candidates and presidential candidates in a variety of settings, all the way from a one-on-one across the kitchen table to a small group setting maybe at a pizza ranch, to a very large group setting. We tend to be a pretty diverse state. We sent Senator Grassley to Washington. We also sent Senator Harkin to Washington.

I think the country takes a look at Iowa and sees the vetting process that we make these candidates go through. There's a lot of exposure that we provide these candidates and the media provides these candidates as they (unintelligible) through Iowa, like the Iowa State Fair and other places.

And so, yeah, it's still up to the country to decide who they want as the nominee. But I think Iowa is doing a very, very great service in providing the first-in-the-nation caucuses and launching a potential public figure.

For example, even though Mike Huckabee didn't win the nomination, he's on FOX News, ABC Radio. And right now, most people would classify him as a frontrunner in the 2012 cycle if he chooses to get in.

MARTIN: But it's also true that, for example, Michele Bachmann is one of the potential candidates who's already visited Iowa and she was hosted by your organization and their presidential lecture series. I don't know, I can play a short clip from her if you want to hear it. Let's play it, just for people who haven't heard a lot of Michele Bachmann, can hear what she has to say. Here it is. She's talking here about what she calls the changes that she's witnessed in the education system. And here it is.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Instead of knowledge, facts, information, there was a change, at least in some of the schools that I was observing. Politically correct attitudes, values and beliefs move to the center front of the education agenda. And it seemed as though knowledge, facts and information was taking a backseat.

MARTIN: Now, that's not, you know, some of the red meat that Michele Bachmann is known for. But the point is that she may be popular with the base, but - and many of the people in your group - but can she translate well to the national stage? That's the question I have.

Mr. VANDER PLAATS: I think her voice is going to be a welcomed voice not only in Iowa, but across the country. I don't know if she's going to end up being the nominee or being a VP nominee or just having a voice out here in the process. But I think she's also giving some sentiment to people all across the country, Democrats, independents and Republicans, who are pretty fed up with the education system.

I was in public education as a teacher and a high school principal. And we've seen that we've put a lot of money into a system and it's become more politically charged instead of actually focused on the true education of the children. I think people across the country want to see reform in education so our kids are prepared to compete in a global marketplace.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I'm going to give you the final word here. Do you - it's a similar question, but the idea that candidates who go to Iowa who pass muster with particular audiences and constituencies, is there anybody in the field so far who then you think translates well to the national stage? Not just the national stage, but electoral success.

Ms. CARY: Right. Well, what's interesting, if you look back not just at Iowa, but even just this week in the polls four years ago, the two frontrunners were Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. And in 2004, Bush was the incumbent, the frontrunner was Howard Dean, who then dropped like a rock once John Kerry entered the race.

And so, all of these people that we're talking about right here may or may not end up to be the eventual nominees. I get the sense amongst a lot of Republicans that there is sort of a "Waiting for Superman" phenomenon going on. And at cocktail parties and dinners and things like that, there's a second sort of list of people that I think are far more likely to do what you're talking about, bring in independents and unite the party behind him in the fall.

And that list is kind of fun to talk about. That's Paul Ryan, David Petraeus, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie. You could have all kinds of fun with people like that if only they'd dip their toes in.

MARTIN: Well, then maybe the two of you will come back and tell us some more.

Ms. CARY: Wouldn't that be fun?

MARTIN: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. And if you want to read her blog today, she talked about potential candidate Donald Trump and we refer you to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Bob Vander Plaats is the president and CEO of the Family Leader. That's a socially conservative organization in Iowa that is hosting candidates right now for the Republican nomination or people who are interesting on the national scene. He was with us from Des Moines. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. CARY: Thanks for having us.

Mr. VANDER PLAATS: Thank you.

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