Candidates Count Down to Iowa

Presidential hopefuls are spending every waking minute wooing voters for Thursday's caucus in Iowa. Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politco.com, takes stock of all the last-minute effort.

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Sen. BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result.

ALISON STEWART, host:

That was Senator Barack Obama, quoting Albert Einstein's famous definition of craziness, doing the same thing over and expecting change. Now positioning himself as the candidate that can mixed things up in politics, Obama aimed that shot at the Clintons during a rally at a Knoxville, Iowa high school this past weekend. Now on the TV yesterday, ABC's "This Week," Senator Hillary Clinton downplayed any role her husband would have in her administration, saying quote, "He would not have a formal, official role," end quote.

Now if you clicked down the dial on CBS's "Face the Nation," former senator John Edwards talked about the Clintons, wrapping this barb in his sweet Southern accent.

Mr. JOHN EDWARD (Former Democratic Senator, South Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, I say it's a complete fantasy. You watch President Clinton out on the - and I like President Clinton very much, but you watch him out on the campaign trail, and he spends an awful lot of time talking about his views, and not as much time talking about Senator Clinton's.

STEWART: No more time for niceties. With the Iowa caucus just three days away, and with more than one poll showing a virtual three-way tie among Democrats Edwards, Clinton, Obama, we can expect more to come.

Politico.com's Jim Vandehei is on the line.

Hey, good morning, Jim.

Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (Co-founder, Politico.com): Good morning. How are you?

STEWART: Good. So this is kind of kind of an exciting Monday for you political types.

Mr. VANDEHEI: It is. I think the definition of crazy is us having to, like, not be able to go out and party and celebrate Christmas with our families and pay it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: …with these guys.

STEWART: So did these last minute shots really have any kind of impact?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, you know, they're - because the polls show that both from the Democratic side and the Republican side, that there's as many as seven or eight candidates who could do - who could finish in the top one or two spots in Iowa, they might matter with the couple of those wavering voters. You know, remember, about 7 percent of Iowa voters usually show up for the caucuses. You're talking certainly more than a hundred thousand people. And when it is this tight, if you can move a couple of people one way or the other, it does make a difference. And I think a case and point is Huckabee.

You know, Huckabee was riding high, and everybody was talking about him. He's got on the cover of all the magazines, and he's sort of a toast of the political town. And then all these candidates started going after his record very specifically and very sharply, and he doesn't have a staff. He doesn't have the kind of campaign operations that the others have to respond. And now you see a correlating drop in his poll numbers. So I do think some of these attacks, if done right, can penetrate in a pretty powerful way.

STEWART: Well, you brought up Huckabee. So let's talk about his performance yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He took on rival Mitt Romney, who's been canvassing Iowa with ads attacking his record as governor of Arkansas. Let's listen to former governor Huckabee.

(Soundbite of clip, "Meet the Press")

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): I've been very clear about it. Mitt Romney is running a very desperate and, frankly, a dishonest campaign. If you aren't being honest in obtaining the job, can we trust you to be honest if you get the job?

STEWART: Good move by Huckabee at this point?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Clearly, he's pretty angry about the attacks that he's been getting from Romney. And I think Romney's probably run a nastier campaign than anybody in the Republican or Democratic side, and a big target of that has been Huckabee. And I think when Huckabee makes an argument that Romney appears desperate or that he's not honest, he really is going to, I think, the heart of Romney's weakness.

In Iowa in particular, you have someone like Huckabee, who's going to get most of votes from evangelical Christian who are not happy with the field in general. So I think barring from a big shift, I think he's - Huckabee's going to pull a lot of those voters and finish probably first or a strong second. And what he needs to do is try the knock Romney down, who is his closest competitor.

STEWART: So wait a minute. Whatever happened to all old Fred Thompson and John McCain? I mean, they're not even in the discussion at this point in terms of one and two, especially for McCain, who happens to be doing well in New Hampshire.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Certainly not in the discussion for one or two in Iowa, but I think one of the most interesting storylines, the narrative of the last month has been this resurgence of McCain. I think McCain, if he finishes, you know, second, third or even fourth in Iowa, that's a triumph for him because he hasn't campaigned as hard as the others in Iowa, and he opposes ethanol subsidies. And that, I mean, that's…

STEWART: Well, that that would do it.

Mr. VANDEHEI: That's the mother milk in Iowa. So when you that, it's very tough to win votes, obviously, from the farming community. And if he, you know, he's positioned very well now in New Hampshire, I think McCain has as good a chance with any Republican right now to win the nomination.

Fred Thompson's another story. He's just been disappointment to most conservatives that I've talked to even before he even got into this race. They had really high hopes for him. They thought he'd be very articulate. They thought he'd probably pretty powerful candidate. It turns out he's not been the most energetic candidate or the most articulate candidate, and to conservatives, not even necessarily the most conservative candidate. So he's kind of been a flop in their eyes. But because it's so unsettled and there's as many as five Republicans right now who could come out, you know, in the top one, two, or three slots in the first couple of states, he's still very much alive. But I would put him, sort of, probably in that fifth slot.

STEWART: You've been talking about all these domestic issues, but it's very interesting when a news event actually enters and shapes the race.

We had the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week, and the candidates had an opportunity to respond and got to show a little foreign policy muscles. I mean, John Edwards even called Musharraf. Did someone do particularly well in this instance, or did someone really show an Achilles' heel?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, I think that the - some of the second-tier candidates do quite well, whether it's Dodd or Biden or even, maybe, a Richardson who have a lot of experience dealing with these matters.

You know, not to just sort of disrespect voters, or rank-in-file voters, I don't think most of them know who Bhutto is. I don't think that they pay a lot of attention to what's happening in Pakistan because voters tend to be very parochial. They tend to care about what is their own economic situation and do they have friends that are over in the war in Iraq, and are they paying too much for gasoline.

So I think this is one of those issue where from Washington mindset, we tend to obsess about and think, oh, this is a grand opportunity just to see how these folks would handle foreign policy crisis, whereas I think the average voter is not paying a whole heck of a lot of attention to it. That said, they should be paying a lot of attention to it, because I do think because the world is so tumultuous right now, the ability to react sharply and smartly is one of the most important attributes we should be looking for in a presidential candidate.

I think most of the handled it pretty well. I mean, I think for someone like -the key for someone like Edwards or Obama, who don't really have the foreign policy bona fides, that they can be able to dig - stand in there and show that they can talk about these issues at the same level as Hillary Clinton or a John McCain on the other side.

STEWART: You mentioned some of those second-tier candidates, and I have to think you're talking about Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, who have pretty lengthy resumes as senator, especially Biden in terms of his foreign policy experience. What happens to them if they basically scratch out in Iowa?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Oh, I think you'll see a wailing big time after Iowa. I think the - there'll be maybe two or three on the Democratic side that can keep going in a serious fashion, maybe four, because I think Richardson could probably poll 10 percent in Iowa.

And on the Republican side, you're going to see, I think, a bunch of folks drop out. Fred Thompson, yesterday, suggested he might drop out if he doesn't finish in the top three in Iowa. The truth is, the media will just so focus on the frontrunners, and all the money tends to go towards the frontrunners. So the ability - given this compressed campaign schedule, the ability to mount some sort of comeback is very, very difficult and very, very unlikely.

You know, maybe Rudy Giuliani's the one carried it out there who could do poorly in the first three and still make a plausible argument that later in the month, when we have a lot of the larger states vote - you know, we going to have Florida, California and New York. The list goes on - about 22 states in total that will vote in that - in those couple of days near February 5th.

Rudy's probably the one who could stand it, because he'll have enough money and he has a different type of appeal than the other Republicans. But for the most part, you have to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire or you're done.

STEWART: Now that you brought up the former mayor of New York, the current mayor of New York - it's all over the local papers today, about a possible Bloomberg candidacy, an 11th-hour candidacy. Is there anything there? Or is this just a December 31st and some political writers figuring they ought to fill some space?

Mr. VANDEHEI: No, I've always felt that there's something there. I think he really wants - I think he actually kind of wants to run - I think he wanted to make sure that he wasn't that satisfied with who the nominees might be, and if there's actually an opening for him.

The guy is rich. And if he's - and if he really is willing to spend 1 or $2 billion of his own money, doesn't have to fundraise, doesn't have to worry about having enough money to run commercials, he could easily use that money to get himself on all of the ballots, has an interesting personality and that he's sort of like a problem solver. He is not radioactive.

I think that at either side, he's not really clearly identified with either side, though I'd say he's more a Democrat than he is a Republican. And he now shops himself as a pure independent. I think there's a lot of unease in the electorate, and people are not that happy with the fields. And that's why you see…

STEWART: So we could see.

Mr. VANDEHEI: …so many candidates sort of moving up and down in the polls. But there is an opening for a serious third party candidate. If he gets in, he would be a serious, serious factor. Remember, Ross Perot, who had significantly less money and could be argued as seriously the less serious person than Bloomberg, he got 20 percent when election was pretty unsettled in 1992.

STEWART: So we shall see what Mr. Bloomberg…

Mr. VANDEHEI: Bloomberg's way up.

INSKEEP: Jim Vandehei, co-founder of Politico.com. Thanks for the rundown, and happy anniversary to your parents, by the way.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Oh, thank you very much.

STEWART: It was their 40th.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: They'll love that. Bye-bye.

STEWART: Bye.

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