Leading Presidential Hopefuls Become Indistinct

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Some presidential front-runners are slipping while some long-shots are looking like contenders. As 2007 closes, the big political stories in the presidential campaign are the unexpected rise of Republican Mike Huckabee and uncertainty about which Democrat will emerge victorious.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is away. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

As the year runs out, so too does time for presidential candidates to campaign before the nation's early caucus and primary votes. Iowa's caucuses are on January 3rd and New Hampshire's primary is January 8th. In the past months some frontrunners have slipped back and some long shots are now looking like contenders.

NPR's Mara Liasson examines where the candidates stand.

MARA LIASSON: The race on the Democratic side has been a battle between change and experience. In their home-stretch ads in Iowa, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both relying on their strengths.

Obama's ad uses his own inspiring words from the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner.

(Soundbite of ad)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): America, our moment is now. I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don't want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the President of the United States of America.

LIASSON: Clinton's ad, meanwhile, relies on her credentials, quoting from her endorsement from the Des Moines Register.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Her readiness to lead sets her apart. From working for children's rights as a young lawyer, to meeting with leaders around the world as first lady, to emerging as an effective legislator, every stage of her life has prepared her for the presidency.

LIASSON: The Democratic nomination is up for grabs, but that wasn't the case until recently. For months and months in this very long campaign, Clinton looked like she was on her way to convincing everyone, including President Bush, that she was the inevitable nominee. She had money, endorsements, poll numbers. In the debates she looked commanding, making Obama looked soft and inexperienced.

But all that changed in October. The pre-race was over, and now actual voters were starting to pay attention. And, says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, the dynamic was shifting.

Mr. BILL CARRICK (Democratic Strategist): And it took awhile for particularly Senator Obama to get into the swing of things. He had some trouble with it. I think by the time we get to the Philadelphia debate, we see almost a reversal in the roles.

LIASSON: In Philadelphia, at the end of October, when Clinton was asked about drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, she seemed to say she was both for it and against it.

(Soundbite of debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I did not say that it should be done. But I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): No, no, no. You said yes.

Sen. CLINTON: No.

Sen. DODD: You thought it made sense to do it.

Sen. CLINTON: No. I didn't, Chris. But the point is, it makes a lot of sense...

LIASSON: And this month in Des Moines, Clinton tried to put Obama on the defensive, but it boomeranged.

(Soundbite of debate)

Ms. CAROLYN WASHBURN (Moderator): How will you rely on so many Clinton advisers and still deliver the kind of break from the past that you're promising voters?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, the - you know, I am...

Sen. CLINTON: I want to hear that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well.

LIASSON: Although she still maintains a comfortable lead in the national polls, Clinton's lead in Iowa vanished. Now she has to contend with John Edwards, as well as Obama, there. And her campaign, once seen as disciplined and sure-footed, began to look wobbly and a little panicked. Her national co-chairman, Bill Shaheen, had to step down after he raised the issue of Obama's teenage drug use. Recently, the campaign has been trying to show Clinton as warm and likeable, sending her out to campaign with her mother, daughter and childhood friends.

Sen. CLINTON: Here in Iowa, I want you to have some flavor of who I am, you know, outside of the television cameras.

LIASSON: Clinton's also been trying to incorporate Obama's message of change into her own, claiming she is the one with the experience to make change happen.

Bill Carrick...

Mr. CARRICK: Senator Clinton invested a lot in being the candidate of experience. My own view of that is experience is not really a defining message. And I think that as a consequence her message just ran out of gas. And now to try to switch it around is a very difficult and cumbersome thing to do. And we see her struggling with it on the campaign trail.

LIASSON: Obama is also working hard to shore up his weaknesses, trying to show his judgment and toughness in foreign affairs. And both leading Democrats are looking over their shoulders at Edwards, who's been building an organization in Iowa ever since he ran in 2004. And he could emerge as the slipper of the race.

If the Democratic campaign has demonstrated that frontrunners can be fragile, the Republican race doesn't have a real frontrunner at all. This year, Republican primary voters are acting completely out of character, says strategist Mike Murphy.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Strategist): Yeah, it's amazing. We have a Republican primary that's wide open and unsettled late in the process, not the usual thing for us. We tend to be the follow-the-leader party.

LIASSON: The first leader was John McCain, who wore the frontrunner title early on, then faded. Then there were two frontrunners: Mitt Romney, who had the lead in the early states, and Rudy Giuliani, who had a lead in the national polls.

In the debate on October, the two of them got into a your-mother-wears-Army boots argument over immigration, one of the flashpoints in the Republican race.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican Presidential Candidate): At his own home, illegal immigrants were be employed.

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Moderator): Governor Romney, first respond, then we'll move on.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Mayor, you know better than that.

Mr. GIULIANI: What I'm suggesting is...

Mr. ROMNEY: No. No...

Mr. COOPER: We got to move on.

Mr. GIULIANI: If you're going to take this holier than thou attitude, that your whole approach to immigration was...

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm sorry. The immigration is not holier than thou, mayor. It's the law.

Mr. GIULIANI: If you're going to take this holier than thou attitude, that you were perfect on immigration...

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm not perfect.

LIASSON: Lately, Romney has been focusing on a different rival - someone no one paid any attention to until recently.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican Presidential Candidate): Just like my old pastor used to tell me, when they're kicking you on the rear, it's just proving you're still out front.

LIASSON: That's Mike Huckabee, the folksy, funny Baptist minister who's gone from single digits to the lead in Iowa in the space of a few months. Now everyone's watching to see how he handles the new attention from his opponents. Attention like this.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Mike Huckabee Supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Huckabee even supported taxpayer-funded scholarships...

LIASSON: Huckabee calls himself a paradoxical Republican. As governor of Arkansas, he's raised taxes and cut them. He wants to spend more money on music and art education and believes that creationism should be taught in schools. His rise has been fueled by the support of Christian conservatives who make up as much as 40 percent of the Republican caucus vote in Iowa. He's running this ad that flashes the words Christian leader.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. HUCKABEE: Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me.

LIASSON: Huckabee's rise helped force Romney, whose Mormon religion has hurt him with some evangelical voters, to give a speech about his own faith.

Mr. ROMNEY: I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.

LIASSON: Romney, the former management consultant, has been having trouble making the sale, despite spending an estimated $7 million in Iowa on organization and ads. Mike Murphy...

Mr. MURPHY: Part of what's (unintelligible) Mike Huckabee in Iowa is he's getting a structural vote that's always been there. Huckabee is getting that 30 percent of vote that's there for a dollar if you're the Christian candidate. The question is, after Iowa, can you continue? Can you grow that vote any bigger to become a real contender for the nomination or will he just be catalyst along the way?

LIASSON: A catalyst, for example, that wounds Romney in Iowa, paving the way for one of the other candidates to beat him in New Hampshire, where John McCain has fought his way back into second place. Then there's Rudy Giuliani, who recently made what his campaign called his closing argument in Florida.

Mr. GIULIANI: I don't just pray for miracles. I don't just hope for miracles. I expect miracles.

LIASSON: Giuliani wasn't talking about his White House bid, but he could have been. After a series of stories about his personal life and business dealings, Giuliani has seen his national numbers decline. He was building his strategy around winning Florida's January 29th primary, and then the other big states that vote on February 5th. And that, says Mike Murphy, is a very unorthodox approach.

Mr. MURPHY: It's like trying to win a baseball game in the eighth inning. We're not going to even go to bat until the eighth inning, and then we're going to hit 100 home runs. Maybe, could work, but never been done before.

LIASSON: And now it looks harder than ever. For the first time, Giuliani has lost his national lead. In the Wall Street Journal-NBC Poll, he's now tied with Romney, with Huckabee close behind. McCain is strong in New Hampshire and Fred Thompson can't be counted out. The Republican race, with just about two weeks to go till Iowa, is a complete free-for-all.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can track how the campaigns are playing out across the nation with our interactive primary map at npr.org/elections.

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