GOP Presidential Front Feels Dramatic Shake Up
TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Television crews and journalists descended on Iowa over the weekend for the Iowa's straw poll. In Minnesota, Congresswoman and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann emerged as the winner, but Bachmann's victory wasn't the only political news of the weekend. Texas Governor Rick Perry threw his hat into the ring in an announcement on Saturday. By Sunday, he was already in Iowa campaigning. And former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race after a disappointing showing in the Iowa straw poll.
To make sense of the criss-crossing campaign buses, the stump speeches and the straw poll, we have called on two political watchers. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He joins us from our New York bureau. And Joan Walsh is the editor-in-chief of Salon.com, and she joins us from San Francisco. Ron, Joan nice to have both of you back.
RON CHRISTIE: Good day to both of you.
JOAN WALSH: Thank you.
COX: Michele Bachmann was the winner in the straw poll, as we said, and she was all over the Sunday talk shows. Let's hear a clip from her appearance on Meet the Press.
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MICHELE BACHMANN: I'm grateful that we won the straw poll, but we see this as just the very first step in a very long race because we, of course, have the caucuses here coming up after Christmas, and then there's South Carolina and New Hampshire and onward and upward. There's a lot of work to be done.
COX: As you both know, there's a great deal of debate over the value of the Ames Straw Poll. Ron, what do you bank on this victory? It would seem that, for Michele Bachmann, this is important.
CHRISTIE: I think it is important. I think it was an opportunity for Congresswoman Bachmann to introduce herself not only to the voters in Iowa, but to the broader electorate. There have been a lot of misconceptions about her. There's been a lot of caricatures about her in the media. But I think she came across as being very credible, very intelligent, and someone who has a very strong convictions about her ideas. So I think it's a good introduction for her. And also, it - you know, there are a lot of people who question the validity of the straw poll, but one thing it did do was knock one of the candidates out.
Governor Pawlenty's out. Michele Bachmann's up. So, the race gets a little bit more narrow, at one point, a little bit more broad with the entrance of Governor Perry.
COX: One of the lessons we learned, Joan, from 2008 was that the electorate was slow - some parts of the electorate, at least - slow to take Sarah Palin seriously as a candidate. How similar is that, if at all, in terms of looking at Michele Bachmann and her victory over the weekend?
WALSH: I guess I would quarrel with the idea that the press didn't take Palin seriously. I think once she was put on that national ticket, she was a very serious candidate. The question was: What did she stand for? What did she believe, and could she handle the spotlight? And she obviously was not ready for all the attention she got. I think Bachmann is - has been practicing. She did that - she did a good, credible job in that first debate. She shocked people because she didn't drool, ramble, wander.
She was in control of her message, and she's now getting more scrutiny. And she's going to have a hard time with that, I think. I think she's very appealing to a certain, very narrow segment of the Republican base, and she's - I don't see her getting beyond that.
COX: If anyone could have upstaged Representative Bachmann's victory over the weekend, it was Texas Governor Rick Perry, who officially announced his candidacy on Saturday, in South Carolina. This is what he had to say at that time.
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Governor RICK PERRY: I came to South Carolina because I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on, because a renewed nation needs a new president.
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PERRY: It is time to get America working again, and that's why, with the support of my family, I declare to you today as a candidate for president of the United States.
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COX: So, Ron, what does Governor Perry's entrance into the race do in terms of the race?
CHRISTIE: Well, I think first and foremost, I think it's going to make a more conservative field of the Republican candidates who are out there. He's amassed a very interesting record in Texas, certainly the longest-serving governor in the state of Texas. Half the jobs created in the United States over the last certain stretch of time here really have come from Texas. But on the other hand, there are a lot of question marks about him. Does he have a broader appeal outside of the Bible Belt?
Can he put together the organization, the money, the talent necessary to compete with Governor Romney for the nomination? So, certainly, I think there are a lot of conservatives who are looking to see what he'll bring to the race, but my question and my quarrel with him is did he jump in the race a little too late, and will he be a factor come, say, January or February next year?
COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm talking about the Republican presidential field with Joan Walsh, the editor-in-chief of Salon.com, and with Republican strategist Ron Christie. Let's talk a little bit more about Perry, Joan. If you are Mitt Romney, do you now start looking over your shoulder perhaps more so than you would have before his entrance?
WALSH: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I find it hard to believe that Perry is supposed to be the kind of mainstream guy who can bring in the Tea Party folks, but also kind of mainstream corporate Republicans. I don't really think that that's true. I think he's quite extreme, very, very close to Bachmann, except he does have a record as Governor of Texas. So, you know, he's going to try - I think what he did this weekend was kind of rain on Bachmann's parade.
It was pretty clear she was going to win. And he's the big man with his cowboy boots stepping all over her message. But I'm interested to hear what Ron has to say. I think there is a lot of skepticism about his appeal by some mainstream conservatives. But I think it's going to make it a more interesting race for Romney.
COX: At the very least, it should do that. Let's talk about Tim Pawlenty for a moment. He was in the race, or at least he was targeted or had targeted Ames as an important stepping stone, let's put it that way, for his candidacy. And as we now know, he has decided to leave the race. He had a disappointing third place showing in the straw poll. This is his comments on ABC's "This Week."
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WALSH: This has been an incredible process. It's been a great honor for Mary and me and our team to convey the message of trying to get this country back on track, and I think it is off track, but bringing my record forward as a two-term governor of a blue state, doing things like getting government spending under control. But obviously, that message didn't get the kind of attraction or lift that we needed and hoped for. Obviously, the pathway for me doesn't really exist, and so we're going to end the campaign.
COX: So, Ron, where does he go off track?
CHRISTIE: Well, I think he tried to be too much for too many people, and in the end, really, he didn't galvanize a lot of people to come behind him. I think on one hand, he has a record - as the Governor for Minnesota. He's always been viewed as being somewhat of the center, or center left. And then I think he tried to tack too hard over to the right to re-brand himself as a new conservative. And I think there were a lot of people who question his conservative credentials on one side, and the folks who had voted for him in Minnesota and those around the country kind of looked at him and said: Is this guy a leftist, a centrist or on the right?
So, in the end, I think that's why he finished as poorly as he did, and that's why he pulled out. But Tony, here's my thing: I think he pulled out this early because he wants to position himself to be the vice president for the eventual Republican nominee.
COX: Ah, that's interesting. Do you share that view, Joan?
WALSH: I think it's a possibility, and I certainly share Ron's view that he tried to be all things to all people. I just - it would be interesting to see either him or Romney be the person they were, as a Republican governors with a little bit of centrism, with a little bit of pragmatism, not scare off centrists. But I just don't think a person like that necessarily can make it through the Republican primary process. So it's going to be very interesting.
COX: Two other big names made it to Iowa, one over the weekend, one just today. Let's first talk about Sarah Palin for a moment. We mentioned her, earlier, Joan, but we didn't talk about whether or not this development over the weekend with Pawlenty out, with Bachmann winning the straw poll, what impact that is likely to have on any possible candidacy from Sarah Palin?
JOAN WALSH EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: I just find it hard to believe that she's going to run. I think she's set herself up really nicely to be a kind of king or queen maker - unlikely a queen maker - but you know, she's making a lot of money. She's having a great time. She hates the media, she hates the really intense scrutiny. She can play with this. She gets headlines. If she wants to upstage someone, she can do it. If she wants to help someone, she can do it. I just find it hard to see her getting in the race at this point and I think it's getting quite late.
COX: The other big name in Iowa today. Obviously President Obama did well in Iowa in 2008. What do you suspect is going to happen next year for him in Iowa and how big of a trip is this for him, Ron?
CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's critical. You saw a gallop poll that came out at the end of last week that had the president's approval ratings down to 39 percent, the lowest of his presidency, and I think the president is going to these three states over the next couple of days to shore up his popularity, to try to reconnect with some of his constituents and show that he has a plan to move us forward.
It's a very critical stage for him 15 months out from the election and I think that the disconnect that we've seen from the president and his inability to really sell his policies has put him in a spot where he thinks, hey, I need to get out, roll up my sleeves and go talk to some folks and see what's on their minds.
COX: One of the interesting things about the poll that he made reference to, Joan, is the fact that it says that, if the elections for Congress were held, Democrats would have a slight edge over Republicans. Surprising to you?
WALSH: No, not really. I mean, you know, there are a lot of people in this country who are very worried about the economy. They punished the democrats in last year's election. The Republican House has done nothing except obstruct and they're likely to punish the Republicans, but you know, it's sort of an anti-incumbent mood, so that's trouble for President Obama, as well.
COX: This is the last question and it'll be for you, Ron. Let's talk a bit about the Republicans in terms of how the country views them and whether or not they are likely to take it out on them the next time around as they did against the Democrats in 2010.
CHRISTIE: Well, I think Joan's certainly right. There's a anti-incumbent swell that's really cresting in the country right now and the Democrats really took it on the chin in the 2010 election and I just wonder, frankly, in 2012, whether that sentiment continues and whether it crashes over all the candidates who are running for reelection where they say, you know what? Throw them all out. We're sick and tired of the economy. We're sick and tired of the gridlock.
So if I were a Republican office holder, I would be running hard right now and not saying, oh, we're in great shape. I think all incumbents are in very, very perilous waters these days.
COX: And it'll be interesting to see what the tone heading in 2012 is going to be. So far, it hasn't been very friendly. We'll just have to wait and see what develops.
Joan Walsh is the editor in chief of Salon.com. She joined us on the line from San Francisco. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush. He joined us from our New York bureau.
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COX: Joan, Ron, as always, nice to have you.
CHRISTIE: Thanks for having us.
WALSH: Thanks, Tony.
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