Gingrich Enjoys Lead With Iowa On The Horizon

Newt Gingrich has risen to the top of the polls at a pivotal moment. With less than one month until the Iowa Caucuses, he has a double-digit lead in the state. Political junkie Ken Rudin and columnist Michael Gerson talk about how the field of GOP candidates is faring in the final stretch.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Blago repents at his sentencing hearing, Cain calls it quits, and Newt's the new number one. It's Wednesday and time for a...

NEWT GINGRICH: Truly stupid...

CONAN: Edition of the political junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. President Barack Obama test drives some would-be new slogans out in Kansas. The Senate edges toward an extension of a payroll tax cut or maybe not. George Allen and Tim Kaine square off for a debate in Virginia, though neither is quite yet the nominee. And Democrats cheer the new congressional map in ever-purple Colorado.

In a few minutes, columnist Michael Gerson helps us analyze the GOP field just four weeks away from Iowa. Later in the program, JN25BMIAF and the man who connected the dots from Pearl Harbor to Midway. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us as usual here in Studio 3A. And as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Hey Ken, welcome back.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal. Okay, well, let's see. Just about every poll, and we're going to talking about this later, just about every poll shows that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the clear favorite, at least in the Iowa caucuses. So okay, the question is: Who was the last former House member to win the Iowa caucuses?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia, the last member of the House of Representatives...

RUDIN: Former.

CONAN: Former member of the House of Representatives to win the Iowa caucuses, give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. The winner, of course, gets a fabulous political junkie no-prize T-shirt. And Ken, just within the last hour, we've heard the verdict on Rod Blagojevich. Well, we knew the verdict quite a while ago, guilty on 18 counts. He will do 14 years in prison.

RUDIN: Yes, he is following the Illinois governor tradition. He's the second consecutive former governor to go to prison, George Ryan of course is also in prison on corruption charges. But, you know, he's been in this hot water since the moment Barack Obama was elected president because Rod Blagojevich decided that he was going to sell - or attempt to sell - the appointment to Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. And he did everything he can in his capacity as governor to do that.

CONAN: And he ended up being on tape by the FBI, and it all turned out to be pretty embarrassing. He said at sentencing today that he is deeply sorry for what he did, but at the time he did not know he was violating the law, though apparently setting an example by saying look, the sentence we gave the previous governor clearly did not deter the next one.

RUDIN: Well, that's a good point also. But it's interesting that only this week did he and his attorneys admit guilt. All along, he kept saying that he's not guilty of anything, despite the extortion, the bribery and the convictions that happened back a couple of months ago, back in June.

CONAN: In the meantime, there is a bit of fallout from the Blagojevich scandal, and that involves Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.

RUDIN: Well, the House Ethics Committee announced this week that Jackson, the son of the civil rights leader, the long-time congressman from Chicago, would - an investigation on what he did to bolster his own possible appointment to the Obama Senate seat, what he did regarding government funding, government funds to get his appointment.

And so the investigation goes on, and that's, you know, really not good news for Jesse Jackson because one, his district will be redrawn, and it will be redrawn, and it has already invited another candidate, former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who served one term until she was defeated last year.

CONAN: That new district would include a large part of the district she used to represent.

RUDIN: It's about 25 percent, but still, you know, the point is, you know, she's running against the ethics scandal, which is, you know, I guess it's a scandal around Jesse Jackson. He's been engulfed by it for the last three years. And he also has - you know, he was also involved in this nightclub woman outside of his marriage that didn't go well for his constituents, as well.

But most of the district is still Jesse Jackson country. It's still an African-American majority district. But again, this is part of the Blagojevich fallout.

CONAN: And in the meantime, if we're talking about redrawn districts, we have a new map for the state of Colorado, and this has always been one of those contentious states, it goes back and forth, back and forth. Democrats are cheering.

RUDIN: They are cheering because they got what they wanted. Basically, the real story is is that Mike Kaufman, he's a Republican, I guess did two terms. He's the guy who replaced Tom Tancredo when Tom Tancredo left in 2008. Kaufman was in a safe Republican district. Now they've put in more liberal parts of adjoining areas into his district, and now he's going to have a fight on his hands.

I mean, he's the former secretary of state, state treasurer. He's a popular guy, but it's now a far more competitive race than it would have been.

CONAN: And in the state of Virginia, the two likely candidates for Senate will square off for a debate tonight.

RUDIN: Well, we thought we were not going to hear the name Kaine anymore, but there's another Kaine. No, actually this afternoon, the debate is this afternoon. And it's Tim Kaine and George Allen.

CONAN: Former governor.

RUDIN: Both former governors. Of course, George Allen lost his Senate seat to Jim Webb six years ago, and now with Webb retiring, he's looking for a comeback. George Allen, of course, has the macaca incident back from six years, when his whole candidacy fell apart. And Tim Kaine, of course, was the DNC chair and a loyal Barack Obama supporter in Virginia, and I think Obama's numbers, certainly not the same in Virginia as they were in 2008. So both of them have things to overcome.

CONAN: Both in a dead heat, according to - statistical dead heat according to opinion polls. If Democrats have any hope of holding on to control of the Senate, they'd better win in Virginia.

RUDIN: But, you know, what's interesting is that they - this debate excluded all the other candidates because they didn't get the required 15 percent in the polls. Now if you think of what the Republicans for president have been doing, I mean, not many of them are getting 15 percent of the polls. But it was kind of an arbitrary decision, I thought, to exclude other candidates because, as you say, neither Kaine nor Allen is the certified nominee as of yet.

CONAN: Let's get some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, again the last former member of the House of Representatives to win the Iowa caucuses, 800-989-8255 if you'd like to weigh in, or you can email us, talk@npr.org. And let's go first to - this is Caleb(ph), Caleb with us from Studio City in California.

CALEB: Hey, my guess is Poppy Bush in 1980.

CONAN: That would be the first - Bush 41.

CALEB: Correct.

RUDIN: He was a former member of the House, and he did win the caucuses in 1980, and he is not the most recent.

CONAN: Nice try, Caleb.

CALEB: All right, thanks, guys.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's go now to - this is Iowa City, and Trev(ph) is on the line. Trey(ph), excuse me.

TREY: Johnson, I guess maybe not now.

RUDIN: I'm sorry?

TREY: Lyndon Johnson.

RUDIN: Well, actually, when Lyndon Johnson ran for president, there were no such thing as the Iowa caucuses. They kind of began in '72. George McGovern came out of nowhere to do well there, even though uncommitted. But back in the Lyndon Johnson days, there were no Iowa caucuses.

CONAN: And after Ken Rudin and Neal Conan bring the political junkie out to Iowa next month, there may never be another political caucus, but anyway.

RUDIN: Or political junkie.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

TREY: By chance are you going to talk about fast and furious?

CONAN: Not on the political junkie segment. Well, we're hoping to get a segment on TALK OF THE NATION.

TREY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Simian(ph), Simian with us from Rochester, New York.

SIMIAN: Hi, my guess is Dick Gephardt.

CONAN: Dick Gephardt from neighboring Missouri.

RUDIN: Dick Gephardt actually did win the Iowa caucuses in 1988. He - one, he was not a former member of Congress...

CONAN: He was a current member of Congress.

RUDIN: He was a current member of Congress and of course is no longer - is not the most recent winner.

CONAN: But good guess, Simian. Thanks very much. Let's try - this is Faun(ph), Faun with us from Tampa.

FAUN: Yes, I say Bob Dole.

RUDIN: Bob Dole did win the Iowa caucuses in 1996, again not the most recent former House member.

CONAN: Ooh, but getting closer. Nice try, Faun.

FAUN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is - excuse me, wrong button. This is John(ph), John with us from Des Moines.

JOHN: I'm going to go with Al Gore.

RUDIN: Al Gore is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: Of course, he was vice president when he was elected - when he won the caucuses in 2000 and a former senator, but he was also a former House member from Tennessee.

CONAN: And this piece of paper just handed me, an email from John H(ph) saying Al Gore. So apparently came in at the same time, so two political junkie no-prize T-shirts will go out this week. John, stay on the line, we'll collect your particulars and send you that wonderful T-shirt in exchange for a promise of your digital image we can post on our Wall of Shame.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Congratulations.

JOHN: Appreciate it.

RUDIN: We think.

CONAN: We think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That may be held up as collateral for blackmail later. Anyway, we're talking about the presidential campaign coming up, and it was interesting to see President Barack Obama go to Osawatomie in Kansas this week, and he was talking there. It's the same place where, 101 years ago, former President Theodore Roosevelt made his Square Deal speech, and it was a lot of themes that President Obama echoed in his speech yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CONAN: And this of course again part of his effort - well, part of the campaign for sure. He's not going to win Kansas but trying out what seemed to be some campaign slogans.

RUDIN: Yes, and I think it's - I don't know how effective it is, but it certainly seems to be winning the day at least in the fact that he's trying to portray the Republican Party as the party of the rich. And when he's talking about the same rules, if the middle class should pay a certain amount of taxes, then the wealthy should pay taxes.

Of course, they do pay taxes, but a lot of the battle that's going on in Congress, like with the payroll tax extension, President Obama is pushing for an extension on a middle-class tax cut to go past the year. But to pay for it, it would put a surcharge on millionaires, people making over a million dollars a year.

The Republicans say look, we're not going to cut taxes for some and raise it on the others. So they say it's a no deal. But it's a winning - Obama and the Democrats think it's a winning Democrat argument.

CONAN: In other words, if you oppose this tax cut for the middle class, for everybody, you're only in favor of tax cuts for the rich.

RUDIN: And that's exactly what the Democrats - the Democrats feel that they have the Republicans on the run on this issue, and they might.

CONAN: Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, said the Democrats put a bill on the floor calling for taxes on the wealthy to pay for this. They knew it would lose, he says.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: So Democrats can have another week of fun and games on the Senate floor while tens of millions of working Americans go another week wondering whether they're going to see a smaller paycheck at the end of the year.

CONAN: But Ken, this does put Republicans on the horns of a dilemma. One Republican crossed the aisle. That's big news these days.

RUDIN: Susan Collins, right. But it also - exactly, it also does because the Republicans are talking about - they've always been talking about they're the party of tax cuts. The Democrats and the Obama administration are the party of higher taxes. But when you have a presidential administration in the Obama administration pushing for a middle-class tax cut, the Republicans are in this bind.

They say, well, how could we oppose this? I mean, how could we be responsible for this going down to defeat if all these middle-class folks lose their, the tax benefit by two percentage points come December 31.

CONAN: And if you remember a year ago the scramble to get legislation passed before the end of the congressional session, well, that's going to happen again. There's all kinds of measures that have to come for a vote before the end of the year.

RUDIN: Exactly, and there's no question that President Obama may not win this argument in the Senate, but he may win it as a political argument.

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin. Up next, a month from Iowa, where are we? Michael Gerson joins us on the shape of the GOP field. We'd like to hear from supporters of Herman Cain: Where do you go now? 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday. Ken Rudin is back with us. NPR's Political Junkie turned down Donald Trump's debate invitation though. He's saving up his material for his Political Junkie column. And of course that ScuttleButton puzzle, both of those are at npr.org/junkie.

And Ken, no puzzle last week while you were away, but you have a winner to announce from two weeks ago?

RUDIN: That's correct. I had a Minnie Mouse pin, a Drink Pepsi button, and a button of two brothers celebrating their birthday on the same date. So when you add them all together, you get the Minnie-soda Twins. Yeah, okay. And anyway, it was Ardona Manis(ph) of Portland, Oregon whose correct answer...

CONAN: She gets a political no-prize T-shirt and the - and something that will cure her puns. Mitt Romney still clings to his lead in New Hampshire, but with the Iowa caucuses less than a month away, well, we've been counting down like this for it seems like a couple of years now - the field is dwindling.

Newt Gingrich making inroads in New Hampshire as well, now holds double-digit leads in both Iowa and South Carolina, leads certainly on his mind when he told ABC's Jake Tapper he does not need to bash his primary rivals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

GINGRICH: I don't have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who aren't going to be the nominee; they're not going to be the nominee.

JAKE TAPPER: You're going to be the nominee?

GINGRICH: I'm going to be the nominee. I mean, it's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

CONAN: There are reports that Herman Cain, with the demise of his campaign, may soon endorse Newt Gingrich. We want to hear from those who supported Cain. Where do you go now? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, now an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. Mike, nice to have you back on the Political Junkie.

MICHAEL GERSON: Great to be with you.

CONAN: And does Newt Gingrich really have a shot?

GERSON: Well, he certainly has the poll numbers right now. The problem with his analysis is that Cain had those poll numbers, and Perry had those poll numbers, and all fairly recently. You know, we've had about a third of the Republican electorate that has gone serially to the non-Mitt candidate.

That's true in Iowa, it's true in South Carolina, and this is now in a different place. Romney's problem, however, though, is while the Washington establishment a few weeks ago, the Republican establishment, seemed to settle on Romney, the Republican electorate has not. And they've gone to one more try here.

Each of those other candidates have kind of wilted under the scrutiny. Gingrich is certainly capable of making mistakes, but we'll see how he does.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Mike, what does the DNC and the White House know that the Republican voters don't know? Because if you listen to - you look at their email every day, it's anti-Romney stuff day in and day out, constantly bashing Mitt Romney, as a flip-flopper or whatever. But they seem to be convinced that it's Romney as the nominee, and yet you don't that with Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina.

GERSON: Well, there could be another reason for that, that they fear Romney more. I think that it would be their dream to have Newt Gingrich as an opponent. He's a very skilled person, but he has a lot of baggage, a baggage train, and he also has a, you know, tendency to make exaggerated, blustery statements that we hear all the time.

So I think that they're, you know, preparing for Romney, probably because he'd be the stronger candidate. That's my guess at this point.

CONAN: We've heard one of those comments, at least according to a lot of people, just recently, that we have truly stupid child labor laws in this country, and we ought to hire poor young black African-Americans to be janitors at their schools.

GERSON: Well, it's a perfect example of Gingrich's problem. There's a point in here somewhere, which is it's good to have early work experience. Everyone, you know, you could say that, and that it would make, you know, some sense. But then you say child labor laws are stupid, it's an overstatement. It's like saying that the Congressional Budget Office is inhabited by reactionary socialists, which he also said recently. These are pretty equitable sort of bureaucrats, you know.

And, you know, he has a habit of overstatement that I think is going to be a drawback in a presidential run.

CONAN: And a lot of people say, yes, his numbers have been electric, his rise has been electric, his fundraising has been good. Interesting story in your paper this morning on the front page, saying he's just beginning to pay back the debts from last spring when we all buried his campaign, in no small part because he was spending extravagantly on private jets and hotel suites.

GERSON: Yeah, I think you couple that with the fact that they don't have - the Gingrich campaign is not well-organized in early states. Maybe that doesn't make any difference anymore, but I'm not sure that all the normal rules of politics are suspended in this season, and I think it's a serious challenge. He has money problems, and he has serious organizational problems in early states.

CONAN: He does have the money, though, to run advertising. He does have his first ads up in Iowa, speaking of an even grander America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

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 our lives. Yes, working together we can and will rebuild the America we love. I'm Newt Gingrich, and I approved this message.

CONAN: And Michael Gerson, that - we can't ignore Newt Gingrich's strengths. He's a very good debater. He's done very well in these series of debates. Other people didn't. He does have presence on camera. He does have, seemingly, a passel full of ideas every single day.

GERSON: Well, it's absolutely true. I mean, the Republicans seem to have settled on the two most skilled candidates. I think Romney and Gingrich both have the best political skills. And they're not really too far ideologically from one another. They're not Tea Party. Neither of them comes from a Tea Party background. They're both pretty mainstream internationalists. They're economic conservative without being libertarian.

The contrast is really a stylistic contrast. I think Republicans, many Republicans in the primaries, like the fact that Gingrich has a very tough criticism of Obama, sometimes over-the-top criticism of Obama.

And I think that, you know, it's a serious problem that Romney does not inspire a lot of love and loyalty. He seems a respectable candidate but not one that provokes a lot of enthusiasm.

So, you know, Gingrich has a real shot here. It's not like, in my view, like someone like Cain or even Perry, who turned out to lack basic political skills - the ability to debate, the ability to speak like they know, like, you know, what they're talking about in public. Gingrich has those skills. I think it puts him in a better position.

CONAN: There are those in the Republican Party, though, who choke at the idea of candidate Gingrich. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn served in the House when he was speaker, Gingrich, and had this to say on Fox News Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

SENATOR TOM COBURN: I just found his leadership lacking, and I'm not going to go into greater detail on that.

CONAN: He didn't have to. That's pretty damning.

GERSON: I think a lot of people that worked closely with Gingrich in the House of Representatives are skeptical. And his appeal to Republicans in many ways is not I'm going to be who I used to be, it's I'm going to be something different. I'm going to be more disciplined. I'm going to be - you know, have a different approach to these kind of campaigns.

Now, I don't know if you can change that much in a certain way, because he has been undisciplined. He has said things that embarrass the party and himself. He has done things that, you know, were scandalous. And so he has to make the case, I'm - this is the new Newt and that, you know, things have changed fundamentally.

CONAN: We want to hear from former Cain supporters – well, they still may be Cain supporters, but they can't support him anymore, he's left the race. Where do you go now? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Paul's on the line calling from Philadelphia.

PAUL: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

PAUL: I'm a 27-year-old conservative from Philadelphia. I was a Cain supporter partly because of his private-sector experience. And to vote for Newt Gingrich doesn't seem to make sense. I'm tending to think I'm going to be a Romney supporter now.

CONAN: Romney supporter. Any particular reason why?

PAUL: I do like his business experience. I think he's actually, believe it or not, more consistent on conservative values than Newt Gingrich. It's - I'm tempted by Bachmann, but I think that Romney has a better chance of winning.

CONAN: All right, Paul, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And let's go next to - this is Chris(ph), and Chris is calling from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

CHRIS: Hi.

CONAN: You're on the air, Chris, go ahead, please.

CHRIS: All right, thank you. Well, yeah, I was a Cain supporter. I'm a soldier in the Army, and I guess what I really liked about Herman Cain was that he was willing to make some kind of major changes to our tax structure. I liked that his 9-9-9 plan might try to, you know, at least take a different angle and maybe wipe out our bad tax code.

And so now I'm starting to look at Ron Paul because while he does seem to be a little bit out there, I really feel that he might be able to make the changes like sort of the more drastic changes that I feel we might need due to the economic system.

I guess maybe my question for Mr. Rudin is: Does he think that that's a viable option, or what's his take on that?

CONAN: Ron Paul now second in the polls in Iowa.

RUDIN: Well, at least nominally second, very close to Mitt Romney, who could be third, and of course George H. W. Bush finished third in Iowa in 1988 and ended up winning the presidency. It's interesting to go from Herman Cain to Ron Paul because Ron Paul seems to have detailed, specific views on policies going back to his, you know, run for president in 1988 as a libertarian, whereas Herman Cain seemed to be doing it by the seat of his pants.

I don't know where Libya is. I don't know what Ubeki-beki-beki-stan(ph) - who's this Becky he keeps talking about? It just seems like, you know, Ron Paul represents a certain - obviously, a certain part of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, whereas Herman Cain, I just never thought...

CONAN: Well, we...

RUDIN: ...I never understood it.

CONAN: Mike Gerson, we do talk about the steady numbers of Mitt Romney. They don't go up above 25 percent anywhere...

GERSON: That's true.

CONAN: ...but they're all...

GERSON: They, generally, go down below 20, although they're a little bit below that now.

CONAN: So Ron Paul has been building steadily. He's now in a top-tier candidate, you have to say it.

GERSON: No, I agree with that. I think Iowa is not a Romney-Gingrich race. I think it's a Romney-Gingrich-Ron Paul and maybe a fourth more conservative candidate like Bachmann or Santorum that's going to get a significant amount of support.

RUDIN: Not Rick Perry? Not Rick Perry?

GERSON: I don't think so, although he will maintain some support. I think that they want, you know, religious conservatives are very strong in that process in Iowa. There's a number that will settle on a candidate there. I'm not sure that that's all bad for Romney. I mean, he wants to - if he would have finished second in Iowa, I think they would have taken that early in the process. I mean, he - that was never his strength. I think it's more disturbing what seems to be happening in South Carolina, where Gingrich has a lot of momentum.

But it's a, you know, I think it's more of a race in Iowa, and, you know, a month is a long time for Gingrich to make some mistakes. I think he's right now - or could be close to his high point in this primary process. And it depends on what he does and how much he loses.

CONAN: Ron Paul has certainly - thanks very much for the call, Chris, by the way. Ron Paul has certainly demonstrated organizational strength in Iowa and other places. And he also has a fair amount of money, and he's running ads in Iowa as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lots of bark. When it's show time, whimpering...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG WHIMPERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...like little Shih Tzus. You want big cuts? Ron Paul's been screaming it for years. Budget crisis? No problem. Cut a trillion bucks year one. That's trillion with a T. Department of Education - gone. Interior, Energy, HUD, Commerce - gone. Later, bureaucrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's how Ron Paul rolls. Want to drain the swamp? Ron Paul. Do it.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: I'm Ron Paul, and I approve this message.

CONAN: Ron Paul, as we mentioned, second in the polls in Iowa, very close to Mitt Romney, who is third. Leading those polls is Newt Gingrich. We're talking about where we stand a month out from the Iowa caucuses with Michael Gerson, who's a columnist for The Washington Post, also with us, of course, NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And does Iowa be - will Iowa be the last stand? You'd think Michele Bachmann, for example, has to do well, top-three finish in Iowa or what credibility does she have left?

GERSON: I think that's fair. Her roots are there. This is the perfect state for her appeal. I think that's true. I think it's also interesting that Ron Paul has been carrying the anti-Gingrich message the toughest. He had an ad up calling attention to the fact that Gingrich was a consultant for Freddie Mac when he was criticizing politicians that were supporting Freddie Mac, a very tough ad. And so I think that that's probably, you know, maybe helping Romney to some extent as well. And Romney's newest ad when you look at it is talking about how he's been married to one wife for so long. I mean, it's...

CONAN: Meant to draw an implication there?

GERSON: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: It's not a very subtle...

RUDIN: Newt Gingrich has also been married 42 years but just not to the same (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: Exactly. So, you know, but I do think it's obviously make or break for some of these candidates that are - that have a religious conservative appeal because Iowa is the place where a religious conservative has to emerge.

CONAN: There are some, though, interesting column by George Will over the weekend who said Romney to Gingrich from bad to worse. He calls Mitt Romney a conservative of convenience - that familiar flip-flop charge. But had this to say about Newt Gingrich: Newt Gingrich embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. There is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of and a plan to perfect everything. This is an appeal for yet the last-minute dark-horse candidate to come riding to the rescue when he appeals for a reconsideration of Rick Perry and indeed Jon Huntsman.

GERSON: I hear a number of people talking particularly about Huntsman as a possibility, that he's more conservative than his image talks about, but, you know, I don't know. I mean, the Republicans' primary voters do not report being upset about their choices. They don't say that they don't believe it's a weak field. Now, I think objectively it is a pretty weak field compared to what it might have been if people like Mitch Daniels or Mike Huckabee or others have gotten in the race. This would have been a stronger field. But I'm not sure that that too many Republicans are thinking that they want a complete outsider in this race.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Yeah. I think Mitch Daniels was a strong candidate until he got into the race, and then he would have been ripped apart just like everybody else has been. But I'm writing down all these things we've thought we knew about this process. You need money to compete in Iowa. Newt Gingrich doesn't have money. You need organization. He doesn't have that. You need family values. We talked about that as well. You need the anti-Washington, anti-lobbyist issue, and there's the Freddie Mac thing.

You have the ethics issue, which is - Republicans are very strongly on. And, of course, Gingrich was reprimanded by the House in 1997. He seems to be violating every possible previous rule on the road to the nomination, and yet, right now, he's the flavor of the month.

GERSON: Well, that's assuming that this is not just another balloon candidate that gets popped in this process. I mean, he has a significant number of liabilities. But I go back to it - this - it does indicate something serious about Romney himself in this process. People have serially looked for alternatives. And a large group of voters has been willing to accept whoever has momentum as long as they're not Romney. That I think is a pretty bad sign. That doesn't mean he will be a bad general election candidate, but it means that this could be a long race in this process.

He will compete in a lot of states and do quite well, and there's proportional representation. He will gain a lot of delegates, but there's going to be, I think, a real race here.

CONAN: A war of attrition though - organization, money. Newt Gingrich did not file in time to get on the ballot in Missouri, not a critical state but an indication of his problems.

GERSON: No, I think that's true. When I - I was just a month ago in Iowa, and he essentially had no staff in Iowa at that point. You know, I met with someone there that was the Gingrich person and said that they had a lunch with him that day, and that they've never met one another before, the people that were supporting him in the state. You know, he has lost much of his staff to other campaigns, particularly to Perry's campaign. And, you know, I think he has a risk here.

He has not run an effective campaign. In fact, he's lost a lot of people, and he's ran a rather poor campaign. Now, he's ahead. I think he - the risk is that he'll feel like he's been rewarded for the way that he's run this campaign because I don't think that's, you know, the reason that he is where he is now because he's done something innovative or interesting.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post, joined us here in studio 3A, along with, of course, Ken Rudin, our political junkie. And just a reminder, Ken, we're on the road next month to both Iowa and then to New Hampshire as we do The Political Junkie in those states, ahead of those critical balloting contests.

RUDIN: And don't forget Saturday debate, Republican debate on "ABC News" from Iowa, big debate on Saturday.

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