As Iowa Caucus Looms, Presidential Campaigns Spar

fromWOI

The first votes of the 2012 Republican nominating contest will be cast four weeks from Tuesday in the Iowa caucuses. The air is crowded with ads and the campaigns are pulling together their ground operations.

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Four weeks from tonight, Iowa voters will gather in their local precincts. They'll make their picks for the next Republican presidential nominee. With the caucuses fast approaching, it is a busy time in Iowa.

Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio has this story about the intense battle among the Republican campaigns.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: If there's any doubt the stakes are high in Iowa right now, just stop by any of the leading candidates' campaign offices. You'll find staffers in closed-door meetings and volunteers working the phones. This is what it sounds like at the headquarters for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich , which just opened near Des Moines.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Well, for the precinct captain, what you do is you go to your caucus in your area on January 3rd, and you just stand up when it's your turn and say why you're voting for Newt Gingrich and try to convince everybody else that they need to vote for him too. Does that sound like something you can do? Great. OK. And I'm going to need your mailing address so we can figure out what precinct...

MCCAMMON: Turn on the TV in Iowa these days, and you'll hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's up with these sorry politicians?

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lots of bark. But when it's show time, whimpering like little shih-tzus. You want big cuts? Ron Paul's been screaming it for years. Budget crisis...

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And some liberals say that faith is a sign of weakness. They're wrong. I think we all need God's help.

NEWT GINGRICH: We can return power to the people and to the states we live in so we'll all have more freedom, opportunity and control of ours lives.

MITT ROMNEY: I spent my life in the private sector. I've competed with companies around the world. I've learned something about how it is that economies grow.

MCCAMMON: Ads like those for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney have hit the airwaves in earnest.

As the erstwhile frontrunner, Romney has seen his star fall a bit lately. A Des Moines Register poll this weekend put Gingrich solidly on top with Paul in second place and Romney third.

I caught Brian Kennedy, Romney's state campaign co-chairman, on his cell phone. He thinks there's still time to turn things back around.

BRIAN KENNEDY: I think Iowa's a wide-open race. We've seen a lot of volatility over the past few months. I think we'll continue to see it. Voters are not ready to make up their minds, and they're looking over all the candidates. I suspect we'll have these two debates in early December, and after that, the voters will move into decision-making mode.

MCCAMMON: One of Romney's biggest-name supporters, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, will hold a rally in the state tomorrow. Romney himself has made only a handful of visits, and his campaign has just one office and five paid staff in Iowa.

Ron Paul's organization looks similar, with one official office and five staffers. His Iowa chairman, Drew Ivers, also works as a paid consultant to the campaign. He says the organization is spending a respectable amount of money on ads - in the ballpark of a few hundred thousand dollars.

DREW IVERS: It's significant because we think Iowa is significant. We want to address the Iowa voter and say, we want you to listen to our message. And if you agree, we want you to support Ron Paul, his candidacy because we think it's the right one.

MCCAMMON: Paul's team has been called the best organized by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who says he won't endorse anyone because he wants to be a good host during the caucuses.

GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: You've got a lot of candidates, and you've had the lead change hands many more times than previously. And so it's still very fluid, very open. And I think a lot of it is because the public is looking for the ideal candidate. And now I think they've come to the realization nobody's perfect, and we need to choose the one that's the best.

MCCAMMON: Branstad says Iowans also have been closely watching the candidates' debate performances, but personal visits are still important. Back at the Gingrich office, the re-organized campaign added a sixth staffer this week. Senior advisor Katie Koberg says they're not focusing on the possibility that the lead could change hands again.

KATIE KOBERG: We're not really worried about that stuff. The worry that we have right now is making sure that when Iowa comes up, that we're continuing to do well and that we have the rest of the country to worry about as well.

MCCAMMON: One contender who appears to have peaked long before it could do her much good is Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She has a dozen paid staff in Iowa, more than any of the candidates at the head of the pack. Since winning the Ames Straw Poll in August, she's fallen to near the bottom of the polls.

In a year where debate performances have propelled candidates in and out of the top tier, organization may matter less here than in the past. For NPR News in Des Moines, I'm Sarah McCammon.

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