GOP Voters In Iowa Weigh In On The Candidates

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Iowans are in the midst of a frenzied 72 hours of presidential politics. Thursday night, eight candidates took the stage at Iowa State University for a spirited debate. Saturday, thousands of voters will cast ballots for their favorite in the Ames Straw Poll. Also Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will announce, at a conference of conservative bloggers in South Carolina, that he's throwing his hat into the presidential ring.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Rick Perry is not an official candidate in tomorrow's Iowa Straw Poll. It's considered the first big test of the Republican presidential contest. Last night, Iowans got a chance to watch the current candidates try to set themselves apart in the Fox TV debate. Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott sat down for coffee with a group of uncommitted Republicans to hear what they thought.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Baby Boomers Cafe is just a few blocks from the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines and is considered a political hangout. The Obama family got hooked on the chunky chocolate chip cookies here during the 2008 campaign. Today, Republicans are digesting last night's debate ahead of decision day tomorrow.

RUSS CROSS: At times, it seemed like it was a debate over who was running for president of Minnesota.

ELLIOTT: Des Moines banker Russ Cross wasn't impressed with the two Minnesotans campaigning hard to emerge from the pack: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Governor Tim Pawlenty.

CROSS: The banter back and forth between Bachmann and Pawlenty was too much, way overdone. Arguing about state-level issues and who was for what and who did what was a waste of time and no value.

KAREN NOVAK SWALWELL: I thought it felt petty.

ELLIOTT: Karen Novak Swalwell is an executive recruiter in West Des Moines.

SWALWELL: And that's not what I went to see. I wanted to see them talking about how they're going to solve problems of the country, not rehashing their issues that they'd fought over before.

ELLIOTT: Swalwell says after the performance, she's dropped Bachmann from her short list and says Pawlenty is on the bubble. She and Russ Cross both believe Romney came off as the most presidential of the bunch. But Kelly Anderson, a marketing rep from Des Moines, says she was leaning toward Romney but found him a little too low-key last night, while others stood out.

KELLY ANDERSON: It made me kind of wonder, wow, I don't really know who I'm going to vote for. Michele Bachmann surprised me, and Herman Cain actually surprised me, too. And Mitt Romney surprised me in a way that I wish he would have been more involved. So it was kind of disappointing in a way.

ELLIOTT: Russ Cross was disappointed with the overall message. He says it could have been a 2007 debate.

CROSS: We want to cut spending, and we're against raising taxes. OK, that's nice. Everybody's saying that as a Republican. What makes you different?

ELLIOTT: But while no one at the table can single out with enthusiasm a clear frontrunner, that doesn't necessarily mean they're eager for a new face to jump into the fray. Brad Boustead runs a small business in Urbandale. He has mixed feelings about Governor Perry's plans to launch his candidacy from another state, while the Iowa straw poll is underway.

BRAD BOUSTEAD: Rick Perry, I like a lot of things about him, but I do think they should be here in the game. You don't sit out the game and just show up at the Super Bowl - I'm ready to play now.

ELLIOTT: But West Des Moines business consultant John Stineman says it may be time for the Republican Party to abandon its tradition of selecting a nominee based on their GOP pedigree and instead go for a candidate who's willing to storm the castle.

JOHN STINEMAN: Do we want to go on the resume or do we want to go on the motivational abilities? I'm not convinced that that debate has been settled.

ELLIOTT: Small business owner Brad Boustead says there's time for that to settle out, and the first step comes tomorrow.

BOUSTEAD: They've been running around. They've been hanging out at the coffee shops. They've been meeting at the Republican meetings; we've had them all go through the meetings. And they get up; we give them a chance to talk. We clap politely, almost without regard to what they say. And they go onto the next thing. OK, that's nice. But now, can they get their followers to drive up to Ames and vote for them. Can they actually turn people out?

ELLIOTT: For some candidates here in Iowa, tomorrow may be the last chance to answer that question. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Des Moines.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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