Iowa's GOP Voters Weigh Political Hopefuls

As more states hold earlier presidential primaries, Iowa's caucuses may lose some prominence. But voters in the Hawkeye State remain vigilant about their role. And a few have made up their minds months before the caucuses.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We are in the middle of a very different presidential campaign. Many candidates are campaigning many months earlier than usual, and they will have to compete in many big states that moved up their primaries to February 2008. But for now, anyway, Iowa still seems likely to go first. That's the scene of the traditional first caucus, the first voting. NPR's David Greene is in Iowa this week. And David, exactly where in Iowa?

DAVID GREENE: Just outside Cedar Rapids, Steve. But I've been traveling around quite a bit, packing in the miles on my rental car.

INSKEEP: Okay, so Iowa is still first, but does it still matter?

GREENE: People here certainly think it still matters, and the first evidence that they point to is that so many candidates are coming here. Most but not all of the major candidates have been 1spending a good amount of time here. They do a lot of the radio and TV shows, they talk to voters, and Iowans just love to treat their state as a laboratory and prod and question their candidates and see how they respond.

And Mitt Romney, who is actually leading in the Republican polls in this state, spent a lot of time here this week. And Romney was on a program called "Iowa Press," a television program. He was a reminder that everyone running for office here has to say that they are the candidate for the rural voter and that they lived on a ranch. Here's a little bit of Romney.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate; Former Governor of Massachusetts): I spent a summer out in rural America in Idaho. I worked at a ranch there. I remember coming home from the ranch and seeing the extraordinary black soil and tall corn of Iowa, saying, boy, God must have loved this place.

INSKEEP: Oh my goodness. I suppose, David, if you have so many candidates, you have so many people who have amazing memories of Iowa and their connections to Iowa just about now.

GREENE: Exactly. Everybody remembers even the day or two they spent on a farm either in Iowa or somewhere in the country when they're talking to voters here.

INSKEEP: Well, now if all this campaigning is happening earlier, if the whole schedule is moving earlier, are people in Iowa making up their minds earlier?

GREENE: Well, they say they're taking things the way they always do. They love sticking to history and sticking to the system they have in place here, and that was the question I've been asking a lot of voters. I spent some time in Des Moines with a group of Republicans, The Bull Moose Club. They named their organization the Spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. And they are group of young Republicans and they bring in speakers occasionally. This is the head of the group, Matt McDermott.

Mr. MATT MCDERMOTT (President, The Bull Moose Club): We also have people who have nothing to do with politics. The speaker that we had last month runs the zoo. He's the CEO of the Blank Park Zoo here in Des Moines.

INSKEEP: I don't know; maybe running the zoo is good preparation for this campaign.

GREENE: It could be. You can tell they're not totally obsessed with politics yet, but these young Republicans told me that they're already coming under a lot of pressure from people at the campaigns who are calling them. They know they're involved in politics and people at the campaigns are saying, hey, you know, commit to us for the caucuses, commit to us for the straw polls. So they're under pressure to make some early decisions. And I was sitting at a table with McDermott and seven of the other group members, and I asked Matt to give me a hand in taking a poll of the group.

And how many have definitely settled on a candidate to support in the Republican Party?

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Four and a half it looks like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: So there were four and a half hands up around the table, meaning among these young Republicans half have nailed down their candidate even though it's so early. And one had his hand up halfway. Matt McDermott is backing John McCain. He said he's impressed that McCain has stuck to his position supporting the war in Iraq.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Agree with him or not, there's something very admirable about that.

GREENE: Joe Bryant(ph), one of those undecided, said McCain's stance may be admirable, but it's also dangerous. Republicans, he said, learned a hard lesson in 2006: that if you support President Bush on the war, you lose.

Mr. JOE BRYANT (Member, The Bull Moose Club): The last loss here in Iowa was so painful and is so recent in my mind.

GREENE: He said a vote for McCain is basically a risky bet that the situation in Iraq will improve.

Mr. BRYANT: It's tough to anticipate that or to bank on that change happening, because even with call (unintelligible) a couple of good months of progress over there, we've seen how quickly that can be taken away. So I think it'll just continue to be a fragile issue.

GREENE: So Bryant said he's thinking about voting for Mitt Romney because he's a fresh face. Others said they're looking at Rudy Giuliani, who hasn't spent a lot of time in Iowa, but he did visit the home of the one of The Bull Moose members. The former mayor's tough stance on terrorism really impressed some in the club. And as always in Iowa, an up close visit to someone's house seemed to make a difference.

After getting out of the big city, Des Moines, I drove up to the farm town of Vincent, where Democrat Joe Biden walked into a community college building.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Democrat Presidential Candidate): You got awful good folks coming here for just coffee and donuts this early. I apologize, I have a cold.

GREENE: So different venue, different party, but the Iraq war was still the big topic. Now, Biden has made a business out of criticizing the White House on foreign policy, but recently he voted to fund the war in Iraq. So here he was in Iowa having to remind people of his record.

Sen. BIDEN: Can you name anybody you've heard running for president in either party who's been more a vocal, consistent opponent of the war than I have been? I have been on every single - I have been on more of the - every talk - every Sunday, if you're a junkie, every Sunday you turn on a show. Who do you have to watch?

GREENE: As he spoke, some of his campaign posters began falling down off the cinder block wall.

Sen. BIDEN: That's a bad omen, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Kent Stufflebeam(ph) was listening to Biden. He's a retired plumber and big in the local Democratic Party. He even remembers the last time Joe Biden came to Iowa running for president 20 years ago.

Mr. KENT STUFFLEBEAM: Joe is smart. Joe has been around. Joe knows what the problems are.

GREENE: And Joe is just a blip in most polls. Stufflebeam said not to count him out, but he said his own eyes have been wandering. He sounded apologetic.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: I probably have been on Hillary more than anyone else in the past. I've donated some money - not very much - to Hillary, and that's because in her case I think she's extremely smart and we get two for one. I think Bill Clinton will help a lot being an ambassador to the world.

GREENE: Stufflebeam said he is still undecided. He wants to hear more from all the candidates like Clinton, John Edwards, and that other frontrunner.

Unidentified Woman: Join me today as we welcome the man who listens, Senator Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Obama was just down the road earlier in the week at the University of Iowa.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democrat Presidential Candidate): Well, thank you so much for that wonderful introduction.

GREENE: Obama unveiled a new health care plan, and he was more formal than usual. He used a teleprompter and stayed on script, except when this baby started crying.

Sen. OBAMA: If you have children…

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Sen. OBAMA: Right on cue…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Your insurance will go with you.

GREENE: Afterwards, I talked to a nurse named Becky Levin(ph). She thought Obama was okay.

He gave a very specific speech. What more do you feel like you need to see?

Ms. BECKY LEVIN: Probably payment of it and how it's going to work. How - where the money is going to come from.

GREENE: She said she likes Obama's style, but she's waiting to figure out how much experience he really has. Her husband Tim said he's still sizing up the candidates, too, but Hillary Clinton is not likely to get his vote.

Mr. TIM LEVIN: The way she's alienated a lot of Republicans, I believe - I don't really know, but I know she is - I mean, that's the first thing they bring up. If you listen to the Republican speak it's, well, look at her. They don't say really anything against her, but they just really don't like her.

GREENE: What about how you feel about her?

Mr. LEVIN: She's all right.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's David Greene, who's been talking with voters in Iowa. And David, you were just playing tape there of a Democrat. Why are Democrats so interested in what Republicans think about Hillary Clinton?

GREENE: That's the funny thing, Steve. A lot of people in Iowa say they're looking for the most electable candidate, and one of the concerns about Hillary Clinton, and perhaps one of the reasons that, you know, while she's the national frontrunner she's not ahead in the polls in Iowa, is there's concern among Democrats about whether she can get enough swing voters to her side to win the presidential election. And if they don't think she can, they might not want to give her their vote in the caucuses. So that's one thing that Hillary Clinton does have to address when she's out here.

INSKEEP: You know, I've got to ask because some people raise concerns when folks in the media cover this as a horse race. It sounds like even some voters, in the key state anyway, are following this leg of horse race and trying to figure out how they can their bet.

GREENE: They are, I think. And voters will say, you know, even if they have aligned themselves with a candidate, they love Joe Biden, they love Bill Richardson, they love Hillary Clinton, they love Barack Obama, they love Mitt Romney. At the end of the day, they're looking both at the person as well as where people stand in the polls. People in Iowa, above all else, are very politically savvy, and they're proud of it, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Greene broadcasting from a rental car somewhere in Iowa. David, good talking with you again.

GREENE: Good talking to you, Steve.

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