GOP Presidential Hopefuls Head To Iowa

An important test for Republican presidential candidates happens Saturday — the Ames Straw Poll. It's both a fundraiser for GOP candidates and a measure of who is gaining early support in advance of the state's important caucuses next year. Three of the candidates — Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney — have elected not to show for this event, but they will be on the ballot. Michele Norris talks with Carol Hunter, politics editor at the Des Moines Register in Iowa, about the GOP field.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: And now, we're going to spend some time catching up on GOP presidential politics. The candidates are flocking to Iowa in advance of the upcoming Ames straw poll. In past years, that contest has helped set the early contours of the presidential race, but there are new wrinkles this year. For more, we're joined by Carol Hunter. She's politics editor for the Des Moines Register. Welcome back to the program, Ms. Hunter.

CAROL HUNTER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

NORRIS: Well, one of the big changes this year is that the perceived frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is not putting that much muscle into competing in that straw poll. Mitt Romney is in Iowa today, but I understand it's the first time he's been in the state since May. Why has he been so absent from the state?

HUNTER: It's a strategy this time around for Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney of course, competed very hard last time around in 2007, and, in fact, won the straw poll in Ames. But he spent millions of dollars doing it, put lots of time, energy in the state. But then his campaign sort of lost steam and he came in second in the Iowa caucuses, which is the big prize, to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

So this time, he's leading in many national polls, so he's kind of taking a been-there-done-that attitude toward the straw poll.

NORRIS: Now, has Romney's absence opened up the field for other candidates to, perhaps, surge forward? Or for some sort of surprises as the campaign moves ahead. What does this mean, for instance, for someone like Michele Bachmann?

HUNTER: It does open up opportunities. Of course, there's another big sort of looming-over factor this time around in that Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is expected to make his intentions clear about the race on Saturday - the same day as the straw poll. And he is expected, once he gets in - it is expected that he will jump in - to be quite a factor in reshaping the race.

NORRIS: Now it seems like Minnesota is overrepresented in the Ames straw poll, with two candidates from the neighboring state, Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty has spent a lot of money in Iowa and yet he's dogged by headlines like: Tim Pawlenty campaigns for attention. Is this a make or break poll for him?

HUNTER: I think what he's looking for is a top-tier finish here. He spent a lot of time trying to dampen expectations ever since our June Iowa poll. The Des Moines Register Iowa poll in June, he was sixth place and that was a disappointment for him, given all the time he had spent in the state. So if he comes in a fairly close second to Michele Bachmann, say, he'll try to make the case that, hey, I've made progress and I've gotten traction now with my campaign.

NORRIS: One other thing that's interesting about the straw poll, when it comes to Republicans, is that you see lots of different brands of Republican orthodoxy represented there. But I'm wondering if the rise of the Tea Party Movement has moved the entire field to the right. And what does that mean for people who are more moderate, and because moderate Republicans are large in number in a state like Iowa.

HUNTER: It's true. You have this ongoing tension in the Republican Party between the strong social conservatives and then the more moderate, fiscal - although they don't really like the term moderate. You might call them establishment Republicans, often associated with the business community. They are most concerned about the economy and fiscal policy.

You have some candidates, like a Tim Pawlenty, who will say I can bridge that gap and appeal to all of them. But the Tea Party movement has really added another wrinkle to it. Michele Bachmann is a favorite of the Tea Party. So if you combine Tea Party activists and the social conservatives, who also flock to her, she's got a very strong base here in Iowa.

NORRIS: Carol Hunter, thanks for talking to us.

HUNTER: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Carol Hunter is the politics editor at the Des Moines Register.

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