How the Candidates Stack Up in Iowa

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is considered one of two front-runners for the nomination nationally. But in Iowa,where Obama unveiled his health care proposal Tuesday, Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton both trail John Edwards, whose strong standing reflects the amount of time he has spent in the state. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney has pulled ahead, despite Rudolph Giuliani's national lead. David Yepsen, columnist at the Des Moines Register, talks with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Senator Barack Obama's speech today is the latest in a series of policy presentations designed to show that his campaign is focused on substance instead of celebrity. And his choice of locale at the University of Iowa was designed to help boost his standing in the state. Senator Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton are considered Democratic frontrunners nationally but both are trailing former Senator John Edwards in the Iowa poll. A recent Des Moines Register poll shows that frontrunners in both parties are trailing in Iowa.

David Yepsen is a columnist for the Register and he joins us again to talk politics in the state.

Hello, David.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Columnist, Des Moines Register): It's good to be with you. Good to be with you

NORRIS: So what do these polls show? And let's begin, if we can, with the Democrats. How far ahead is John Edwards and how will he be able to sustain that lead?

Mr. YEPSEN: John Edwards is at 29 percent in our latest poll. Senator Clinton is at 21 and Barack Obama is at 23. You're looking in a poll with about a four to five percent margin of error. So while John Edwards leads, it's not a conclusive lead. Many of these numbers are within the margin of error. He has been campaigning here now for years and has built…

NORRIS: He basically never left.

Mr. YEPSEN: That's right. I mean, he started in 2002 when he ran the first time, and he's built a very good organization. He - and he spends a great deal of time here. I think it's noteworthy - he's unemployed. So is Mitt Romney on the Republican side. These other people that are trailing in the race, they tend to have jobs. They are senators and they are governors and that limits their ability to campaign here.

And Senator Edwards is also, I think, put together a message of economic populism with a strong anti-war message. And that's a potent combination inside a Democratic primary fight.

NORRIS: Now, before we get to the Republicans I want to ask you about that memo that surfaced last week from a campaign adviser within the Clinton staff. A memo suggesting that the campaign actually considered skipping Iowa.

Mr. YEPSEN: I think there are people inside the Clinton campaign who think that would be a good idea, but it's late. They've already put their chips down here. She's in here. And I think it was, you know, a two or three-day story. I don't think it's hurt her with Iowans.

NORRIS: Let's turn to the Republican side. The recent Des Moines Register poll shows that Mitt Romney was ahead of Giuliani and McCain. What is Mitt Romney's pitch in Iowa?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, Mitt Romney is at 30 percent, McCain's at 18, Giuliani's at 17. I think Mitt Romney puts together the best combination of any Republican out there. He has a nice executive persona. He has a good organization, good staff. And I think that combination really wears well with Republicans, many of whom are a little nervous about their ability to hold on to the White House in 2008.

I should mention that our poll also showed about 70 to 80 percent of the likely Republican and Democratic caucus goers say they could still be persuaded to change their minds. But I think for now, Mitt Romney has put together the best package.

NORRIS: How much time is Mitt Romney spending in the stand? I know that he is a lot of fun, sort of, standing in as a surrogate traveling the state. How much time does a candidate actually spend in there?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, I have a sense that he's in here somewhere once a week for several days. He understands that if he can win here and then win in New Hampshire, where he also leads in polls, that that will change the dynamic of the race. And the national frontrunners, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, would take a real hit if that happened.

NORRIS: You know, David, we've talking about the so-called frontrunners nationally or the frontrunners there in Iowa. What about the so-called second tier candidates? Who among them is gaining traction?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, I think New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is doing pretty well among Democrats. He's at 10 percent in this poll, and that puts him in fourth place. On the Republican side, I think, former Wisconsin governor, Tommy Thompson, has really put in, shoved in the stack here, so to speak, and he's spending all kinds of time here. I think those two are probably, sort of, that the top of the second tier, if you will.

NORRIS: David, always good to talk to you.

Mr. YEPSEN: Good to talk to you.

NORRIS: That was David Yepsen. He's a columnist with the Des Moines Register.

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