A Closer Look At The Buzziest GOP Contenders

Guests

Jay Root, reporter, Texas Tribune
Tom Scheck, reporter and producer, Minnesota Public Radio

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll in her campaign to win the GOP presidential nomination, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry stole headlines with his announcement that he's running, as well. Two reporters who've covered the candidates profile both contenders.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One winner, one dropout and a new contender for the Republican presidential nomination this weekend. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty ended his campaign after he finished a distant third in the Iowa Straw Poll. The winner in Ames was Representative Michele Bachmann. But she did not get the headlines all to herself: Earlier on Saturday, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy in South Carolina.

Most still regard Mitt Romney as the frontrunner. Ron Paul finished a strong second in Ames. But Bachmann and Perry got the buzz this weekend. They've both been in politics at least a decade. This marks, though, their grand entrance onto the national stage.

If you vote Republican, what do you want to know about Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the American friends of an Iranian terrorist group on The Opinion Page this week, and the first in the Great Dismal Swamp. But first to the new stars of the GOP presidential sweepstakes. We begin with Texas Tribune reporter Jay Root, who followed Rick Perry from Charleston to Des Moines and the Iowa State Fair. Jay Root, thanks for being with us today.

JAY ROOT: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And I know you've just heard Governor Perry give a soapbox speech there at the state fair. Anything new?

ROOT: Oh, not really. He is sort of bashing Obama again and stressing his opposition to too much government regulation, a lot of talk about the EPA, what he sees as an EPA overreach.

He is really stressing his farm, farming roots. He grew up - he keeps talking about how he grew up as a dry-land cotton farmer and how he had to pray for rain a lot, so stressing his faith to a crowd that's very open to that. It was not a whole lot unexpected.

CONAN: And there is a long political history to Rick Perry, former lieutenant governor to the former president of the United States.

ROOT: Right, well, he is - he was a state rep. He was elected as a Democrat in 1984. So he's been in office quite a long time. He was lieutenant governor for a couple of years, and as you noted, when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, in December of that year, Perry became governor, and then he was elected to - he's in his third term now, unprecedented third term. He's the longest-serving governor in Texas history by far, and he is currently the longest-serving, continuously serving governor in the United States.

CONAN: You noted that he switched from Democrat to Republican back in 1989. Why did he do it, and why did he do it then?

ROOT: Well, you know, that was at a time when the Republican Party was really aggressively recruiting people to switch parties. Perry was seen as something of an up-and-comer. He - attractive-looking guy, and the party really targeted him, the Republican Party did.

Phil Gramm had converted to the Republican Party sort of famously and was elected as a Republican from the College Station, Bryan-College Station area, and he talked to Perry, and it ended up being great timing, which is a theme that emerges throughout Rick Perry's career is great timing.

And he got elected - narrowly, narrowly elected agriculture commissioner in 1990. Most people thought he couldn't do it. You'll find it interesting that his consultant at the time was Karl Rove, who of course famously became George W. Bush's chief political strategist.

He was only - he was one of two Republicans that year that were elected to the non-judicial statewide ballot. And the other one was Kay Bailey Hutchison. In 1998, eight years later, the Republicans swept the entire ballot, and then several years after that, in 2010, 12 years later I guess, Rick Perry faced off with that other Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, for governor, and he won, and now he's running for president.

CONAN: Now the other thing that distinguishes his recent career, he is a spectacular fundraiser, as well.

ROOT: He is a spectacular fundraiser, and keep in mind, though, that in Texas, it's sort of the Wild, Wild West of campaign finance. We have no limits. In fact, in 2006, one of Perry's opponents, Democrat Chris Bell, got the largest single donation ever given to a Texas political candidate, $1 million. He got a $1 million donation from a Texas trial lawyer, John O'Quinn, who has now deceased.

But Perry has gotten - Rick Perry has gotten - it's not uncommon in Texas to get $250,000, $500,000...

CONAN: And we're having problems with the connection to Jay Root, a reporter for the Texas - whoop, there, is he back? Are you there, Jay?

ROOT: Are you there, Neal?

CONAN: Yes, there you go. We apologize for the technical difficulties, live radio. You were talking about his - the unlimited donations that he's receiving in Texas. Is it fair to describe his political philosophy as conservative and very Christian, evangelical Christian?

ROOT: Yeah, I think that - he's been a conservative really all his life, even when he was a Democrat. Of course, he at one point had supported Al Gore for president, and so that was, you know, at a time when, you know, a lot of people - he, you know, Al Gore was a Southern Democrat. So there is that history.

But he's been a conservative his entire life, even when he was a conservative Democrat, obviously now a conservative Republican. But he has increasingly talked about his faith more openly and of course famously held this, on August 6th, earlier this month, this event called The Response in Houston, which was a big evangelical prayer event, and over 30,000 people attended.

It was - it sort of - there was a lot of hoopla and a lot of really, frankly, negative press about it going into it, but the Perry campaign thinks this was a huge win for him. Estimates going into it were that 8,000 people or so would show, and, you know, over 30,000 people came up. And then there was a lot of direct outreach that went along with that. They think that was a big victory for him.

CONAN: That one-time support for Al Gore for president might be mentioned by some of Rick Perry's rivals for the Republican nomination for president, among them Michele Bachmann, the winner, as we mentioned, earlier this past weekend, at the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

Joining us now from Minnesota Public Radio, where he's a reporter, is Tom Scheck. Tom covered Michele Bachmann for a decade. In that time, she went from local school board member to state senator to a leader, now, in Congress, now a presidential candidate. And Tom Scheck, thanks very much for being with us.

TOM SCHECK: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And you say that when she first ran for Congress, Michele Bachmann, too, could have been dubbed a Christian conservative.

SCHECK: Well, she still is. I mean, she has been someone who has been pushing that ideology for several years, and she has been known during her time in the Minnesota Senate and when she ran for Congress and then, as a member of Congress, as someone who isn't afraid to talk about her faith and discuss it at length, whether it's with voters or on the stump.

CONAN: And she's also the founder and leader of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress. Did she come late to the Tea Party, or is she a genuine grassroots activist there?

SCHECK: Well, that's the interesting thing about Congresswoman Bachmann is that she's always kind of seen where the conservative movement is going before a lot of other Republicans. When she ran for the Minnesota Senate, she was one of the first Republicans to really criticize the education standards that Minnesota had in the state, and she really called to overturn them, which eventually happened.

In 2004, she was one of the first Republicans and was one of the most vocal Republicans, at the time, to call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And then in recent years, she's been one of the people who have noticed and discussed and worked to bring the Tea Party into her fold, so to speak, so she could get voters to vote for her and then, at the same time, kind of propel her image.

One of the reasons that she is so popular across the country is that she is considered one of the leaders in the Tea Party movement.

CONAN: And this - do they - do you think it's fair, Tom Scheck, to say that she and Governor Perry are going to be fighting for the same constituency within the Republican Party?

SCHECK: I think that there are going to be some cross - there will be some crossover there. What I think will be interesting is to see how it plays out in Iowa and then where it goes from there because Congresswoman Bachmann was born in Iowa. She talks about her Iowa roots an awful lot. I suspect that what will happen is there will be a lot of discussion, once the campaign moves to South Carolina and the primary there, who is more the Tea Party person, also the person who discusses their religion an awful lot, because those two things are popular in South Carolina, as well.

CONAN: And she was challenged by Tim Pawlenty, who served with her in the legislature there in Minnesota and then was later governor when she was state senator. He challenged her to say look, what have you actually done? I ran a state. Rick Perry obviously with a lot of executive experience, too.

SCHECK: Well, that's right. And that's going to be one of the things that the congresswoman is going to have to face. I mean, when she was in the Minnesota Senate, I think that there were about seven bills that she authored that were signed into law, and they weren't major bills at all. One of them was a ceremonial measure, like renaming a highway for a state trooper.

And then during her time in Congress, no bills she's authored have passed. She had some nonbinding resolutions that she sponsored that were passed, but this is one of the criticisms that the candidates are going to - whether it was Tim Pawlenty who just dropped out of the race, Rick Perry or Mitt Romney, are going to level at her, which is, you know, she can't get things done. She hasn't authored or led on any of these major issues.

What the congresswoman says to that is that she has a titanium spine. That's a direct quote, and what she likes to talk about is the fact that she stands for what she believes in, and she doesn't waffle in her beliefs.

And a lot of Republicans right now really respect her for that. I mean, if you take a - if you think about it a little bit, she hasn't walked off the conservative path at all, and that's something that a lot of Republicans want right now. They want someone who's going to challenge President Obama, and they want someone who's going to stand for their beliefs, and that's what the congresswoman is doing.

CONAN: Tom Scheck from Minnesota Public Radio is with us, also Jay Root, who reports for the Texas Tribune. We're digging into Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann's backstories, where they come from and how it's shaped them as politicians.

If you vote Republican, what do you want to know about these two buzzy candidates? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On Saturday, on the campus of Iowa State University, thousands of voters stood in long lines to cast straw poll ballots. After all the votes were counted, Matt Strawn, chair of the Iowa State GOP, delivered the news.

MATT STRAWN: The winner of the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll is Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

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CONAN: Meanwhile, in South Carolina, former Texas Governor Rick Perry announced that he intends to take Bachmann and the rest of the Republican field on. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Rick Perry is the current governor of Texas.]

Governor RICK PERRY: It is up to us, to this present generation of Americans, to take a stand for freedom, to send a message to Washington that we're taking our future back.

CONAN: And neither candidate has been on the national stage for long, so if you vote Republican, what do you want to know about Bachmann and Perry? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is an email that we have from Bridget(ph) in Swampscott in Massachusetts: Why does the media not acknowledge Ron Paul as much as they acknowledge Rick Perry, who was not even in the Ames Straw Poll? It seems like the media doesn't look at Ron Paul as fitting its agenda.

Ron Paul, former Libertarian Party candidate for president of the United States, as we mentioned, finished a strong second in the Iowa Straw Poll, but somebody who's been around on the national scene for quite some time. It is Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann who are relative unknowns at this point. They're the ones we're talking about with Jay Root, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, and Tom Scheck, reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio.

And this email from Eric(ph) in Anchorage says: I vote Republican. I don't plan to vote for either of these people. Remember, Perry actually advocated for secession and only balanced his budget by begging for money from the federal government. Jay Root - didn't quite come out for secession.

ROOT: No, he did not really advocate, and never has, and he says he never will advocate for secession. He did talk about it, rather famously, on April 15th, 2009. And actually before that, as we had a story, the Texas Tribune had a story about how he had made similar remarks actually a month before that.

But basically what he said was - is that - almost a direct quote here, is if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may happen. And, you know, asking - when he was asked, you know, could - might Texas secede. And that was after he held this rally, this Tea Party rally, in 2009 or spoke at it, and he was asked a direct question - what about all these people that are yelling 'secede' - and that was the answer that he gave.

CONAN: And there is, Tom Scheck, any number of controversial lines attributed to Michele Bachmann, including during, recently - not too recently - saying that Barack Obama held anti-American views.

SCHECK: Well, that's just one of the controversial statements that the congresswoman made, and you're going to seeing a lot of more scrutiny, I think, as this campaign ramps up and a lot of reporters start to look at her background.

I mean, she's said some things that were, you know, by fact-checking organizations, labeled pants on fire. I mean, she said that there was a secret plan to partition Iraq while she was in Congress. She also said that President Obama's trip to India would cost $200 million a day, which is nowhere near being close to true.

Other things that she has discussed - and that's going to be one of the things that will be one of the liabilities for this campaign moving forward. Now on the flip side of that, the congresswoman is someone who speaks from her heart and speaks her mind, and that's something that a lot of voters want right now, is they want someone who's going to be able to stand up for what they believe in.

And that's what the congresswoman is trying to push as this moves forward is she's someone who stands up and says what she believes, and at the same time, though, she may be saying things that become a liability.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller, Marlene(ph), Marlene with us from Overland in Kansas.

MARLENE: Yes, I am just curious about, both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have this strong evangelical Christian faith. How do they feel about other religions who are not Christian but are still good people?

CONAN: Well, why don't we start with Jay Root from the Texas Tribune?

ROOT: Well, I can tell you what he has said. He - as the - on the buildup to this event called The Response in Houston, which grabbed national headlines, where he held this prayer and fasting rally, they were very clear that this was a Christian event.

However, Perry was asked about it, and he said that he was, you know, open to - if other people wanted to come, that was fine, and he in the past has said, you know, it's up to God to judge people, it's not up to him to judge who's going to heaven and hell. And that came up after one of the leaders of this event, one of the sponsors of this event, said that only Christians would go to heaven.

So I think you'll see that he is very open about being a Christian himself. I certainly don't think you'll find any statements out there where he's criticizing other people of any other religion.

CONAN: Tom Scheck?

SCHECK: Well, I think the congresswoman is very clear in the fact that she is evangelical, and she is a Christian. But she does talk a lot about how she supports and stands with Israel. So that's something that she discusses.

And she has never made any real - as far as I know - controversial statements in regard to any other religions. There was some controversy about the church she belonged to, it was a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, because that denomination's belief kind of discussed the pope as the Antichrist, which was something that she was - that folks have tried to pin with the congresswoman.

She withdrew her membership from that church before she announced for president in June, and she, when asked about it, said I love Catholics, I'm a Christian, and my church does not believe that the pope is the Antichrist. So that was one of the things that she discussed at the time.

So this will be something I think that folks will also try to drill down on, though, as well.

MARLENE: But right now, both of them scare me.

CONAN: All right, Marlene, thanks very much for the call.

MARLENE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jordan(ph), Jordan with us from Cincinnati.

JORDAN: Hi, Neal, I'm a conservative, Tea Party activist. And I'm a big fan of your program. I am a big fan of Mrs. Bachmann. I like Mr. Paul. I think this next election, what we're looking at on the Republican side right now, is really a question about liberty.

And I'm afraid of - I'm actually very afraid of Governor Perry because as governor of Texas, Mr. Perry advocated a statewide health care mandate, and it required parents to vaccinate girls as young as 12 years old with Gardasil, which is an anti - it's a vaccine designed to prevent HPV in women.

And whether or not it's a benefit, I don't think most Tea Party people, I don't think most Republicans approve of any kind of a health care mandate where people are being told how they have to inoculate their children. So I'd like to know what your guests have to say about that. I think that's going to be a big issue for Mr. Perry if he moves forward in this contest, and I know that a lot of people here in Ohio are already starting to talk about it. We're upset about it, and I think as we learn more, we're not going to like this candidate.

CONAN: And just a point of clarification, Jordan, we'll get an answer for you, but would that upset include vaccines for things like measles?

JORDAN: Well, I think that that's kind of a different issue. I think particularly with the Gardasil, what's offensive to me about it is if we're dealing with children, we're dealing with people who may or may not even be sexually active. This should be a choice. It should be a choice left up to families and parents to make.

And when people like Rick Perry start trying to force families to make decisions, and they take, you know, the doctor and the parents out of the situation, I think that it becomes very dangerous. And I think a lot of Tea Party people are going to have a problem with it.

CONAN: Advocates for the vaccine say it is only - or is much more effective if given before someone becomes sexually active, and that can start earlier than parents think it does. But in any case, as a political issues, Jay Root, is Governor Perry vulnerable on the HPV vaccine issue?

ROOT: Oh, this is easily the biggest controversy that Governor Perry had in his tenure as Texas governor. In 2007, he signed an executive order requiring that teenage girls get the vaccination for HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer.

He said it was a pro-life decision meant to protect life and very much in keeping with his pro-life position, and the legislature, controlled by Republicans, just - it just sparked a complete uproar.

And his fellow Republicans were stunned and surprised by it, and he came under immediate fire. Legislature overturned it. He let it become law without his signature. And he criticized the legislature for overturning it and said that he was going to - they were going to have to look young women in the eye or people who had gotten this disease and lost people and explain why they had done that.

But actually, he has made news on this subject in the last two days. On Saturday in New Hampshire, he started - he backtracked somewhat and said that he should have done things differently. And then today, in a radio interview, he flat out said, quote, I made a mistake, on the - end quote, on that issue. So that's very much in the news. And we had a story on it on the Texas Tribune website this morning. So that has really, really been a controversial topic.

CONAN: Jordan, thanks for the call.

JORDAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Reilly(ph), Reilly with us from Goldsboro, North Carolina.

REILLY: Hi. I'm a libertarian here. My father used to be in the military. And honestly, sir, I've just been extremely disappointed in the media because of the complete and total lack of coverage of Ron Paul.

CONAN: Well, as we mentioned, Ron Paul did finish a strong second in the Ames straw poll but, again, somebody who's been around on the political scene for quite some time.

REILLY: And that's exactly what I don't understand, is that most of the talk that I've been hearing has been about how both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are relative newcomers onto the scene and everybody is asking about their electability and whether or not they can get elected. Well, last I checked, Ron Paul has been elected in office for the past 30-plus years. I...

CONAN: Well, again, people have some idea of Ron Paul's track record. He did run for president before. We're talking about the new people who people don't know so very much about. So that's what the program is today.

REILLY: And while I do understand that sentiment, I just - I feel like people are still pushing him off to the side, as though he's some sort of a side gimmick campaign running, almost as if he is running for the Green Party or something. But I feel like after the Iowa straw poll, when he actually finished with such a close second - I want to say it was like 150 votes behind Michele Bachmann - I feel like it's about time that the media really starts picking him up as a serious candidate.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Reilly. Appreciate it.

REILLY: I appreciate it, too, sir.

CONAN: We are, though, talking about the new - relatively new faces in the Republican presidential field, and that is the winner of the Ames, Iowa, straw poll, and that is Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the chair of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, and also the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who declared his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination on Saturday in Charleston, North - South Carolina, and sort of upstaging the Iowa straw poll results to some degree. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email from Kevin(ph) in Amherst: How will Bachmann and Perry fare in bringing civility back to politics, especially in references to President Obama and the presidential race?

And, Tom Scheck, as mentioned earlier, Michele Bachmann known as something of a firebrand.

SCHECK: Yeah, Neal. There's no doubt about the fact that she is someone who actually stands what she - for what she believes in. And actually, she is one of the members of Congress and especially the House Republicans who actually held a State of the Union response, and it actually stepped on Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman's response, which was the official response during the State of the Union earlier this year. She is someone who does what she wants. She does things - she doesn't really wait in line, and that's one of the things that a lot of Republicans in the establishment have criticized her for. Whether she was in the Minnesota Senate or in Congress, she has kind of rushed to the front of the line, to the forefront.

She has appeared on a lot of TV cable talk shows and mostly talked about what she believes in in terms of Republican and conservative ideology. She is someone who's going to try and work to kind of bring the middle together, or she's going to make that argument. But she's very polarizing, especially in Minnesota. She raised a lot of money in her congressional races. But at the same time, there have been people who either love her, conservatives love her, or just don't like her at all and those are Democrats. And that's something - you don't really find a lot of people in Minnesota where you say, what's your opinion on Michele Bachmann, who say, well, I'm not really sure. And that kind of tells you what kind of candidate she is.

CONAN: Jay Root, is Governor Perry likely to be as polarizing?

ROOT: I think that it's fair to say that this is not compassionate conservatism. I think George W. Bush, when he ran for president - I remember that and covered it - and it was striking how many Democrats - there was even an organization called Democrats for Bush. I don't think you're going to see an organization like that for Rick Perry. These are different times, of course. And I do think that some of the rhetoric has been, I guess, criticized as being strident.

Last night in Iowa, in Waterloo, Iowa, Governor Perry said that he read somewhere that people think he's angry or that he sounded angry. And he sort of shouted and he said we're not angry, we're indignant. And he went through this whole thing about being indignant on a whole range of issues. And he also said that it was time for somebody to elect a president that the troops respected, and that created something of a stir among the media. And so everybody has been trying to get to Perry today, as he's walking through the crowd in Iowa, to ask him does that mean that the troops don't respect President Obama.

I wasn't able to ask Perry that personally, but I did ask his spokesman Ray Sullivan. And Ray Sullivan said that, you know, Perry talked a lot to troops, to soldiers and that was about as far as he wanted to go. He didn't want to...

CONAN: All right. Well, let's see if we...

ROOT: ...really expound on Perry's remarks from his speech.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Alan(ph), Alan with us from Denver.

ALAN: Yes. Hi, Neal. Thank you for your time, and I enjoy your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ALAN: Neal, I'm calling to just voice some concern here over this recent article in The New Yorker concerning Michele Bachmann written by Ryan Lizza. And much of the article is devoted to those who have shaped her thinking over the years, among them Francis Schaeffer, the evangelist and theologian. And I would encourage other people to peruse or to read this article. I mentioned to your screener, I was more supportive of her prior to reading this article. But this has raised some questions and concerns, among them, her claim that evolution has never been proven. She is a - she and her husband are proponents of conversion therapy, which is...

CONAN: Very contro-- I'm afraid we're just running out of time, Alan, and I can - interesting article in The New Yorker magazine. I'm not sure that's going to cause her a lot of damage in the Republican base. But we'll have to see about that. Thanks very much for the phone call.

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And thanks to Jay Root of the Texas Tribune, and Tom Scheck, a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio. Jay Root there at the state fair in Des Moines, Iowa. And Tom Scheck at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Coming up, the opinion page and the terrorist group that includes support from Howard Dean among others. This is NPR News.

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