State Fair Serves as Opening Act to Straw Poll

Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, who is in Iowa for Saturday's straw poll and for the state fair, talks with Michele Norris. Balz will talk about what's happening on both sides of the presidential race.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Veteran political correspondent Dan Balz is also in Iowa. Though he's nice and comfortable inside a radio studio in Des Moines, he writes for The Washington Post and he joins us now. Hello, Dan.

Mr. DAN BALZ (National Political Correspondent, The Washington Post): Hello, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, you're comfortable but you, I guess, missed out on the cotton candy and the corndogs and pork chops on a stick.

Mr. BALZ: No deep-fried Twinkies here in this comfortable studio.

NORRIS: Right. Well, I want to first get to the three Republicans who are not participating in that straw poll, the Republicans that we just heard about in the conversation with David Greene. We'll try to tick through this quickly and I want to begin with John McCain, the one-time frontrunner. What's going on in his campaign and how risky is it for him to skip Iowa?

Mr. BALZ: Well, you know, in one way, it's not risky at all. He skipped it eight years ago and went on to win the New Hampshire primary and almost knocked George W. Bush out of the race. On the other hand, he's in a much different position this time. He did, as you say, get to the point earlier in this contest where he looked like he was the frontrunner. He's had a terrible six months. He's almost out of money. He's lost a significant number of his campaign staff. Even before that happened, they had decided to bail out of the Iowa Straw Poll, I think fearing that they were not going to do particularly well. He's had problems here largely because of his stance on immigration, which is out of sync with a lot of the base of the Republican Party in Iowa.

NORRIS: Yes or no, can he bounce back?

Mr. BALZ: Hard to tell. I wish I could give you a yes or no. I think it's very difficult given what he's gone through for him to bounce back. But he's a very tough competitor. He's not a quitter. I think he has some chance in New Hampshire, where he does have a base of rekindling his support. And I think that's going to be his goal.

NORRIS: Okay. Let's continue to tick through this, someone who's not even in the race yet, Fred Thompson. I want to say all right already. Is he in or not?

Mr. BALZ: I think he's definitely in. I had a conversation with a person who's involved in that campaign earlier this week. It's pretty clear September is the date in which he gets in. I think they already know when - exactly when he's going to get in. They've just hired a new campaign manager. They've kind of established now a campaign structure with a political director and others that are going to take them into actual candidacy.

But there's a lot of questions about him. He's pretty well handled this non-candidacy period and has taken some comfort in the fact that a lot of people seem to think, at least from a distance, he maybe another Ronald Reagan. That certainly remains to be seen. And there will be a lot of questions about him once he becomes an actual candidate. But I think there's no question that he'll be in the race sometime next month.

NORRIS: And former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, attracting a lot of media attention of late, but not the kind the campaign wants. However, he's still leading in national polls. Is that about name recognition?

Mr. BALZ: Well, it's partly about name recognition. But I think it's more than that. A lot of people did not think he would hold up this long because of his positions on abortion and gay rights, which are completely at odds with a majority of the Republican Party. But people see him as a leader. It's clear from our polling and other polling that Republicans are looking for somebody who they think is strong and experienced. They see him as an executive. And certainly, his experience on 9/11 in New York has given him a lot of credibility.

There are, you know - as with all of these top Republicans, there are questions about whether they can really go the distance. But he has held up longer and I think I've heard more people now say - who were deeply skeptical that he could get the nomination that, well, maybe it is possible that even with his positions on the social issues, he could end up as the nominee.

NORRIS: Quick turn to the Democrats. National polls this week show that Senator Hillary Clinton has widened her lead over all the other candidates, particularly Barack Obama. What's at work there, particularly since it's still a three-way race there in Iowa, where you are?

Mr. BALZ: It is a three-way race here. But on the national number, she has helped herself more than any of the other candidates. A lot of that I think has to do with her performance as a candidate. I've talked to people from other campaigns who say, quite admiringly and respectfully, she has been a very good candidate and in some ways better than they had thought.

She's benefited from the debates. I know that at the beginning, her campaign was not sure whether it would be good for her to do a lot of debates. They quickly have changed their view on that. They think these debates are terrific for her. She has looked pretty presidential in all of them. And that has helped her. In addition, even though Obama is outracing her on money, she's raising plenty of money to go the distance. So she's had a very good spring.

NORRIS: Dan Balz, always good to talk to you.

Mr. BALZ: Thanks, Michel.

NORRIS: Dan Balz is a national political correspondent at The Washington Post. He joined us from Iowa.

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