GOP Hopefuls Debate Ahead Of Straw Poll

Eight Republican candidates for president will participate in a debate this evening in Ames, Iowa, on the campus of Iowa State University. The debate comes two days before thousands of Iowans participate in the Ames Straw Poll, an early test of voter mood and the candidates' organizations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. Eight Republican presidential candidates take the stage tonight for a debate in Ames, Iowa. It's a big week for politics there. On Saturday, Iowans will cast ballots in the Ames straw poll. It's a test of voter enthusiasm and a campaign's organizational strength. Both the straw poll and the debate are set against the backdrop of the Iowa State Fair. That's where candidates and voters get a chance to mingle over fattening, deep-fried novelties, often on a stick. And I'm joined from the fair in Des Moines by NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. We'll get to the food on the stick in a minute, but first, how's the fair and what are you hearing from the candidates?

DON GONYEA: Well, the fair is gorgeous, beautiful weather. And the candidates have been all over this state. By one count, I saw something like 100 visits by candidates this week. But ultimately, it all leads to step one of this big 72 hours, tonight's debate. And it just feels like in that debate it's time for them to mix it up a little more than they have. The first couple of debates have been, I think it's fair to say, uneventful. They have been uniform in their criticism of President Obama. And if you're struggling to break through or looking to establish yourself, that just doesn't get it.

NORRIS: Now, not all the candidates are actually fully participating in Saturday's straw poll and I'm wondering what that means for tonight's debate. Who's considered to be the frontrunner?

GONYEA: Romney is certainly the national frontrunner but it feels like the frontrunner in Iowa is Michele Bachmann. This is a place where she does very well. There's a large Christian conservative base among the Iowa GOP and they're active and they turn out. Certainly, she's got Tea Party support, too. So, in some ways we have two frontrunners, but Romney has decided really not to play here in a big way. Because four years ago, he invested a lot of time, a lot of money, he won the straw poll and then finished second in the caucus when it rolled around. So, he's just dialed back the importance of this event.

NORRIS: Don, there's something at that state fair called the soapbox. It's where candidates stand up and make a short speech and take a few questions. Mitt Romney got a pretty rough reception today it sounds like.

GONYEA: It got contentious pretty fast. Now, there were some people in the first couple of rows who got there early. They were not Romney supporters. I would venture to say that they are not Republicans either. They seemed to be, you know, Democrats or progressive Democrats. And they immediately went after Romney during the question and answer, asking him about corporate profits and corporate tax loopholes. Give a listen to his response.

MITT ROMNEY: Medicaid and Medicare are promises we can keep, and there are various ways of doing that. One is we could raise taxes on people. That's not the way

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible) corporations.

ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. We can raise taxes on - of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.

GONYEA: Again, I don't know how well you could hear people in the crowd but that was kind of the tone for much of this Romney appearance. Certainly, what he was saying played well with Republicans in the crowd but you wonder how it plays more broadly than that.

NORRIS: What do we expect to be the dominant issue tonight?

GONYEA: The economy is going to be certainly a dominant issue, and especially all of the events of the past week - what the markets are doing, the Standard and Poor's downgrade. But, again, they're all in pretty much the same place on their condemnation of President Obama. The key will be how they separate themselves from one another in terms of the way forward.

NORRIS: Well, Don, we can hear a lot of activity there behind you. And since you are at the state fair, I assume that you've managed to find something wonderful to eat on a stick?

GONYEA: I had the deep-fried stick of butter and...

NORRIS: How is that even possible?

GONYEA: Well, that's all I'm going to say about it.

NORRIS: Right. Well, I hope you have some Rolaids in your pocket. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: Exactly. Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Don Gonyea.

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