Iowa Voters, Candidates Gear Up For Caucuses

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins All Things Considered host Melissa Block to talk about Tuesday's Iowa caucuses.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In Iowa today, a final opportunity to win over voters before tomorrow's caucuses.

RICK SANTORUM: We need your help. I know all the candidates say they need your help and support. They're lying. I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: Today, we're moving in the wrong direction, but the American people are stirring. This is what this...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: And I've had jobs in the private sector. I understand how the economy works, and I want to use that expertise to get this country going again.

BLOCK: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, along with Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, all campaigned in Iowa today. The state is also digesting a heavy barrage of negative ads. To talk about all of this, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, this has been a wild and wooly campaign leading up to the caucuses. How does the race look to you in Iowa right now?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, right now, the race looks a little bit - it looks like "Back to the Future." The shape of the race looks very similar to how the race began. Mitt Romney still has about 23 percent of the vote in the polls. He got 25 percent of the vote in Iowa four years ago, so he hasn't budged much. The other candidates are still trying to consolidate the conservative anti-Romney vote, and as long as no one candidate does that, 23 or 25 percent will be enough for Mitt Romney to win.

The top three candidates in Iowa right now are Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. And the Romney camp would be satisfied either winning or placing second to either Paul or Santorum because Paul is considered too far out of the mainstream to win the nomination, and Santorum would have a very difficult time putting together the money and the organization to beat Romney in the other states where he wouldn't have the time to do the intensive on-the-ground campaigning that he's done in Iowa.

BLOCK: And, of course, the recent shift, Mara, is that we're actually using the word Santorum and surge in the same sentence, which just a week ago, we would have not been doing.

LIASSON: That's right. He bounced along at the bottom of the polls for months and months. Now, there's the possibility that he could win Iowa, if his support continues to grow at the pace it has in the polls in the last couple of days. There are some signs that the evangelical networks in Iowa that powered Mike Huckabee to a win there four years ago might be coming together behind Santorum. And what would be the worst-case scenario for Romney is that Santorum and Paul take first and second place leaving Romney to an embarrassing third.

That would dent Romney's momentum, deny him a coronation, but it still wouldn't present a game-changing obstacle for him. He's still in a much better position than either Paul or Santorum in the states to come.

BLOCK: Mara, what do you think are there lessons emerging from Iowa about how campaigns have changed?

LIASSON: Well, one thing we've learned is that the Iowa backlash against negative advertising can be neutralized by the super PACS. In the past, Melissa, when two candidates started going negative on each other, often a third candidate would benefit because Iowans don't like negative campaigning. But this year, the super PACS, which, of course, are funded by unlimited, anonymous campaign donations, they can do the dirty work for a candidate. Iowa viewers of television have no idea who it is who's attacking Newt Gingrich, for example.

And one ad analysis shows that half of all ads aired in Iowa were anti-Gingrich - $3 million alone from the super PAC that's supporting Romney. And Gingrich collapsed under the barrage. So we learned an old lesson again which, of course, is that negative advertising works.

BLOCK: And any other old rules of campaigning that apply here?

LIASSON: Well, old rules of campaigning still do apply. The rule book has not been thrown out, even though we saw a lot of weirdness in this campaign, candidates who looked like they were campaigning not for the White House but for a potential gig on Fox...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: ...or for book sales. In the end, the three people at the top of the polls in Iowa ran traditional campaigns. Mitt Romney did everything you're supposed to do. He raised money. He f9igured out his message. He lined up endorsements. He organized. Santorum went to all 99 counties in Iowa. Ron Paul has a formidable grassroots operation. Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, they didn't do those things.

BLOCK: OK, Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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