Presidential Bidders Carve Out Party Niches

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This week, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman threw his hat in the presidential ring, and more staff walked out on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Plus, all eyes turned to Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry is contemplating a bid for the GOP nomination. Guest host Susan Stamberg talks with NPR's Mara Liasson.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. Good morning.

The first Iowa poll of the 2012 election season has former governor Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in a near tie, leading the Republican presidential field. The Des Moines Register surveyed 400 likely Republican caucus-goers and released the poll results late last night. Iowa has the country's first major electoral event. And winning in Iowa can help build the momentum a candidate needs to win the party's nomination.

Coming up, the campaign fundraising frenzy. But first, Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Susan.

STAMBERG: In this Des Moines Register poll, Romney won 23 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers; Bachmann got 22 percent. What do you make of that?

LIASSON: Well, Romney is the national frontrunner and he's been leading in all the polls so maybe there's not too big a surprise there. But Michele Bachmann is the kind of social conservative candidate that does well in Iowa. She's a member of the House of Representatives, she got her start as a conservative Christian activist, she was an advocate for homeschoolers. She turned in a very good performance - some people thought an electrifying performance, in the debate in New Hampshire last week.

She's going to announce her campaign in Iowa tomorrow. She's a native of Iowa. She was born in Waterloo. And this poll allows her to say that at least for now in Iowa she is the alternative to the frontrunner.

STAMBERG: And there there's businessman Herman Cain. He had an OK showing. He came in third; got 10 percent. What is the story there?

LIASSON: Well, I think that Herman Cain is the new different non-politician candidate in that field that's been capturing the imaginations of a lot of Republicans. Ten percent doesn't vault him into the top tier, but it does give a rebuke to all of the other more serious candidates who are underneath him in that poll.

STAMBERG: Yeah. Former Governor Tim Pawlenty, for instance. He did not perform very well in this poll. He got just 6 percent, behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. What do you think is holding back Pawlenty's campaign?

LIASSON: Well, that's not clear. But I think that is the biggest news in this poll. Tim Pawlenty, who is the former governor of Minnesota, a neighboring state, he has been spending a tremendous amount of time in Iowa. He clearly isn't catching on yet. He turned in what many Republicans thought was a disappointing performance in the debate in New Hampshire last week. We've also heard that he's having trouble raising money.

But this is the biggest challenge for Pawlenty. He has to either win or come a very close second to a candidate like Michele Bachmann if he's going to survive beyond Iowa.

STAMBERG: And then another former governor, Jon Huntsman of Utah, entered the race this past week and he only got 2 percent. This is a man who once served as U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama. And listen to what he said during his presidential announcement, referring to his former boss.

Former Governor JON HUNTSMAN (Republican, Utah, Former U.S. Ambassador to China): He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who's the better American.

STAMBERG: So, Mara, do you think there's space in this field of candidates for somebody like Jon Huntsman?

LIASSON: Well, he is the civility candidate. That's the big question, as one of the headlines said in the speech he served tofu instead of red meat to the Republican base. He said he once served as the ambassador to China under President Obama. He actually just served as the ambassador to China. He just came home, and now he's running against his former boss. A lot of Republicans think he's not going to be able to bring the kind of attacks that Republican voters want against the president.

But he is banking on the fact that there are enough non-Tea Party voters who want a civil candidate in the party. I think that's a big question mark. He has pretty moderate views - at least in the past - on civil unions and immigration and global warming. So, he has a long way to go to prove himself.

STAMBERG: Finally, there is still lots of speculation about Texas Governor Rick Perry. Does he seem any closer to announcing that he's going to go for it?

LIASSON: Yes, he does, and he's said that he's going to do everything he can to see if it is possible to get into the race at this late date, to see if there's enough money that's not committed yet. He thinks there is room for a Southern conservative Tea Party-backed governor that would be an alternative to Romney. And I think if he does get in, I think he immediately vaults into the top tier, especially given all the candidates who have chosen not to run. There is a big space for a Southern governor who would be an alternative to Romney. And I think if he gets in, at least at the beginning he immediately becomes that candidate.

STAMBERG: Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Susan.

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