Candidates, States Race For Primary Primacy

Iowa voters were getting an earful Saturday at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum. Meanwhile, Nevada decided to move back its caucus to Feb. 4. NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson joins host Audie Cornish to look at the week's political news and preview what's ahead for the presidential race.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: While Iowa voters were getting an earful, Republican Party officials in Nevada were debating the date of their caucus this winter. The Republican Party there is backing off a plan to leapfrog over early primary states and move their caucus up. It's now scheduled for February 4th. Here to give us a preview of the next few weeks in the presidential race is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Welcome, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Now, back to Iowa for a moment. The GOP candidates were back before evangelical and values voters there, and it feels like we've kind of come full circle from this summer's Iowa straw poll, which really shook things up. Give us the layout of where these candidates stand, how their fortunes have changed since August.

LIASSON: Well, a lot of these candidates have surged and faded. There is no clear front-runner in Iowa right now. The latest polls show Cain and Romney in the lead. Not long ago, Bachmann was at the top of the polls but she's faded. No one candidate is consolidating the support of social issue conservatives there, and that means Iowa could be an opportunity for Mitt Romney. He has a steady kind of 25 percent in the polls. That could be enough to win if the rest of the vote is split against him. But Romney's been purposely ambiguous about how hard he wants to compete in Iowa. He doesn't want to compete so hard that he raises expectations so high that a loss would really hurt him, the way it did in 2008 when he spent $10 million in Iowa and came in a distant second. So, he didn't show up at that faith and forum event this weekend. And last week he made only his third campaign trip to the state and the caucuses are only 11 weeks away.

CORNISH: Another candidate who's trying to change his fortunes is Governor Rick Perry. He's headed to another big primary season state, South Carolina, where he's going to give a speech on tax policy. What is he trying to accomplish politically?

LIASSON: Well, Perry's going to lay out a plan for a flat tax. He's making a bid to be the bold, anti-establishment conservative in the race. This has the potential to set up the first real intellectual battle in the Republican primary. Conservatives love the idea of scrapping the tax code, making it simpler and flatter. But Mitt Romney is against a flat tax because it's regressive. It would raise taxes on the middle class. This is the same argument that Democrats make against it, and Romney's been attacked for making that argument. He's been accused by conservatives for having a passive form of class warfare. So, the question is will Romney defend progressivity in the tax code? Conservatives don't value that but independent voters in the general election just might.

CORNISH: And, Mara, you know, we just wrapped up sort of a gauntlet run of debates, I feel like, last week. Is it me or did the debates actually seem to have an effect on the candidates this year?

LIASSON: Oh, they certainly did. About 20 million people watched the last five debates over the last six weeks. That's about the same number of people who voted in the 2008 Republican primaries. And the debates mattered most of all to Rick Perry, who had the misfortune of getting into the race when there was nothing but debates for six weeks. And he got defined by his performance, his poor performance in the debates. His support collapsed over six weeks. And Audie, there is one more debate coming up soon. We're going to have a foreign policy debate in Washington on November 15th.

CORNISH: Interesting, foreign policy. With all that's gone on in the past week, and looking at how the Republican candidates have responded, how are these issues likely to play into President Obama's reelection platform?

LIASSON: Well, first of all on Libya, there was grudging praise from the Republican candidates for getting rid of Gadhafi, even though they criticized him earlier for either intervening in Libya at all or for not doing enough to get rid of Gadhafi fast enough. Sometimes the same Republican candidates took both of those positions at different times. On Iraq, Republicans were unified in their criticism of the president for pulling out too soon, for botching the negotiations with the Iraqi government on a residual force. How foreign policy plays out for the president is not clear. Certainly fulfilling his promise to end the Iraq War and the death of Gadhafi, like the death of Awlaki and bin Laden, are clear foreign policy successes. And I am sure they will be used by the Obama campaign in advertisements. They prevent Republicans from taking their traditional line of attack against Democratic presidents for being weak on national security. However, I don't think in the end foreign policy will be much of a boost for Republican Obama because this election is going to be overwhelmingly dominated by the economy. I do think foreign policy will be a way for some Republicans candidates to kind of show they're not completely partisan and negative. They can tip their hat to the president for having some foreign policy successes and then quickly segue-way right back to the economy.

CORNISH: Thank you, Mara. NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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