Iowa, Clinton, Debates

Iowa plans to kick off the 2008 election year with Democrats and Republicans convening their caucuses Jan. 3. That's earlier than ever. The perception remains that Sen. Hillary Clinton, a Democrat from New York, is the candidate to beat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The prospect of a former first lady becoming president of this country is one thing driving the battle for the Democratic nomination, even as the Republican side of the race is still fluid.

In just two months, Iowa will kick off the 2008 election year. Both parties have said they will hold their caucuses on January 3rd, that's earlier than ever before.

To make sense of what's going on in both parties, we turn now to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and political editor Ken Rudin.

Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Mara, let's start with the Republican field. As soon as we're done talking, you're jumping on a plane to New Hampshire to check on two of the leading candidates, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. How's the GOP race looking as of this morning?

LIASSON: Still, very unsettled, Renee. We have just over two months before our people actually go to vote. And we have - still have two frontrunners, one national frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, at least in the polls; and one frontrunner in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, that's Mitt Romney. And then you have a very strong second tier. Fred Thompson is doing very well in South Carolina. McCain is strong in New Hampshire. And Mike Huckabee is strong in Iowa.

But in terms of those two frontrunners, the two men that I'm going to see today, they are employing very, very different strategies. One of them, Mitt Romney, is using the tried and true, old-fashioned kind of conventional wisdom strategy which is win Iowa and New Hampshire, you get a big burst of momentum and you can go on to sweep the rest of the primaries. History certainly shows that that can work, and he can afford a strategy like that because he has the resources to compete all over the place.

Giuliani, on the other hand, is trying something that's never been done before. He's trying to take advantage of this new telescoped primary calendar, and he plans to build a firewall in Florida, which votes on January 29th. Do well there and then do very well in the states, the vote on February 5th that have big urban populations like New York and New Jersey and Illinois and California - populations that are more, perhaps, favorable to his kind of moderate Republican stands.

But the question I have about that is can he really afford to not win any of those early states. And what I'm going to be watching for today is I think he is stepping up his activity in New Hampshire and he realizes of all the three early states - Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - New Hampshire is the state that is available to him, and he must do well there.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, it's never a good thing for a candidate to be accused of flip-flopping, but Giuliani made a - maybe made one of the biggest last week. The lifelong Yankees' fan joined the Red Sox bandwagon. Ken, you're a lifelong Yankees' fan. How did you - what's your response?

RUDIN: Well, it's like Lou Dobbs rooting for Mexico in the Olympics. It's something you don't expect to happen. The fact is, Giuliani has remained the Republican frontrunner in spite of his earlier position because he has softened his line on abortion, on guns. Had he run for president the same way he ran for mayor of New York, I think he'd be laughed out of the race. He'd be considered a real liberal. I don't have to use the word flip-flop, but the fact is that Rudy Giuliani has, as Mara says, remained in the top of the heap in the polls because of his softening of those positions.

MONTAGNE: Well, Ken, sticking with you for a moment but turning to the Democratic side, nothing seems to have changed - the perception that Hillary Clinton remains the candidate to beat.

RUDIN: That's true. I mean, if you look at the national polls and the big name endorsements and the non-stop media coverage, I mean, it seems like - one would suggest that Hillary is a frontrunner. And, of course, even Republicans have gotten into the act. They've all but anointed her the Democratic nominee. They've all said - each of them said that only they can save the republic by beating Hillary in November of 2008.

But there's one thing we haven't heard from yet - and that's voters. Democrats in Iowa yesterday announced officially that they're going to caucus on January 3rd. We suspect January 8th will be when New Hampshire votes. And so let's have - let's let the voters have something to say about this. But, again, it looks like if the Democrats are coalescing behind the candidate, it looks like it's going to be Hillary. And obviously, what we're going to see tomorrow - debate in Philadelphia where the rivals are probably will be more aggressive.

MONTAGNE: Mara, how important is tomorrow's night's debate?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's very important, especially for Barack Obama whose supporters have become very frustrated that he hasn't been able to close the gap between him and Hillary Clinton. And he has signaled in some newspaper interviews that he is going to start getting more aggressive and that's what everybody is watching for tomorrow night.

He's tried various tacks to exploit the differences that he says exist between him and Senator Clinton. And they just haven't worked.

The two candidates actually have been going back and forth about Iran and whether voting for a resolution that designated Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization was a good idea or not.

But so far, Obama has not been able to find some avenue to exploit, to really close that gap between him and Senator Clinton. And we'll see if he can do it tomorrow night.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Renee.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mara Liasson and Ken Rudin.

You can read Ken's Political Junkie column every week at npr.org/politicaljunkie.

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