Bucks and Bobbles Mark Path to Iowa Caucuses

The presidential candidates are spending record amounts and still making mistakes on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, says Walter Shapiro, Washington bureau chief for Salon.com.

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(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) When the temp is nearing 10 below that's when you know it's time to go to Iowa. Every four years it's the hottest spot to while away each pouring winter day. Hey.

MIKE PESCA, host:

It's from something called "Caucus! The Musical." Tomorrow's forecast for much of Iowa is highs in the low 30s, no snows, and not as bad as they said in the song. That's a forecast that could have a big impact on democracy and in the future of the world. Think about that. If it snows, it will have an impact on the future of that world. That's because the Iowa caucuses have become so important, or let's just say the political class have decided they've become extremely important and therefore they've become important.

And here's another kind of forecast. The Des Moines Register poll has Mike Huckabee as the leading Republican. He's at 32 percent. He's followed closely by Mitt Romney at 26 percent. On the Democratic side, Obama leads with 32 percent compared to Hillary Clinton's 25 percent.

Walter Shapiro has been to many a caucus in his time. Walter is the Washington bureau chief for Salon.com. And those polls numbers I read, you put much stock in them, Walter?

Mr. WALTER SHAPIRO (Washington Bureau Chief, Salon.com): Unfortunately, but no disrespect to the Des Moines Register, I don't put much stock in that because there are two problems. Number one, it is very hard to figure out who will attend the caucus. The Des Moines Register poll assumes that there'll be a vast turnout - many of the first-time caucus-goers and many independents. And the second problem is that a lot of established political pollsters have told me this month in advance is it is almost impossible to get a random sample of people at home between Christmas and New Year's, which is exactly when the Des Moines Register poll was taken. So I…

PESCA: Now a lot of times, a lot…

Mr. SHAPIRO: I'm not really on the Democratic side. It's a three-way race that nobody can figure out between John Edwards, Obama and Hillary Clinton. And on the Republican side, it's a two-way race between Huckabee and Romney with another race for third place in bragging rights.

PESCA: Now a lot of times, the really plugged in political reporters such as yourself will get whiffs from the campaign's own internal polling and they'll get a sense of what's happening. Any of that going on this year? Are some of campaigns really confident more so than even the public polls would indicate?

Mr. SHAPIRO: That's a very good question, but right now, I think they are holding three campaigns who are polling in Iowa. For example, the Edwards campaign stopped polling on December 19th.

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHAPIRO: It is Obama and Clinton on the Democratic, and only Mitt Romney, the man who is spending almost like Mike Bloomberg-level money here in Iowa on the Republican side is polling. And you really get the sense when talking to people in the campaigns they are polling particularly on Democratic side that they're nervous, they don't know. There are assumptions - I would say the weather forecast - while I heard the weather forecast, I almost said that's Hillary Clinton weather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: The Clinton people have…

PESCA: Wait, are you saying chilly but not that chilly? I don't want to misconstrue you.

Mr. SHAPIRO: No. I mean by Hillary Clinton weather, I mean, the Clinton campaign - the two scariest words have always been ice storm.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. SHAPIRO: They have a disproportioned support among older women. The sort of women for whom the cold doesn't scare out on caucus night play anything that's slippery…

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. SHAPIRO: …anything that's icy, would be a - or a snowstorm would be - can keep a lot of their voters home. And that if the weather here…

PESCA: So that as we've seen hundreds of - I think we've seen hundreds of green shovels that they disseminated - that they distributed in Iowa, right?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Oh, exactly, yes.

PESCA: That's amazing. And now, you know, every year, we talk about Iowa being important and so maybe the casual listener will say, well, okay, it's important very year. I just saw some amazing numbers. Four years ago, John Kerry had a 120 paid staff in Iowa. Hillary Clinton has 400. Four years ago, John Kerry spent $10.7 million, Barack Obama had spent eight, Hillary Clinton had spent another six on just the commercials. How do you see it on the ground? What do you see the effect of this money and this organization? How is Iowa different this year than it has been in past years?

Mr. SHAPIRO: It's a terrific question and it's one of the great unknowns. I mean, for - to some extent, I have wondered if that is just too much money chasing too few voters and that why it can have an effect at the margin. Buying double the amount of TV time probably doesn't affect too much of the outcome here. And whether Edwards was spending less has put together a terrific, traditional organization.

And, you know, Clinton or Obama win tomorrow is - there'll be the gushy pieces on Friday about how there was a clever (unintelligible) to the ground game that they understood that left-handed dentists were the key to winning the Iowa caucuses and they identified every left-handed dentists in the state of Iowa. But until that happens, I don't believe it.

PESCA: Yeah. Left-handed dentists are good for the right wisdom teeth, but not the other ones. And by the way, when you said, money per voter, I think it works out in TV commercials. They're spending about $150 per a likely caucus voter, which is amazing.

Let me switch to the Republican side for a second. Yesterday, or a couple of days ago, Mike Huckabee had a pretty odd press conference, where he said…

Mr. SHAPIRO: That was a pretty conference that will live as long as men are going to pray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: And my basic - my basic regret in life is I was coming back from an Obama appearance in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and I said I've just been out with Mike Huckabee, so I missed it.

PESCA: Right. So you could have known…

Mr. SHAPIRO: I (unintelligible).

PESCA: You couldn't have known - you couldn't have known…

Mr. SHAPIRO: …what Mike Huckabee did is a - Mike's staff - my campaign wants me to put on an awful negative ad against Mitt Romney, but I am, of course, above that sort of thing because how we live and how we conduct campaign is how we measure - were measured in the eyes of the Lord. And by the way, do you want to see that commercial, they wanted us to put on. So…

PESCA: And it showed the negative ad.

Mr. SHAPIRO: …so they aired the commercial for the entire press corps.

PESCA: Now Joe Klein, who's a smart political guy, wrote in Time Magazine…

Mr. SHAPIRO: He's a friend of mine, yes.

PESCA: Friend of yours. He took this so seriously, he, in an article called, Huckabust, or a blog entry said about this press conference. He thought it was so damaging to Huckabee that he will seen as so cynical, he wrote, the sound you hear rumbling out of Des Moines appears to be a monumental implosion. Do you think it was such a bad misstep for Huckabee.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Again, I think Huckabee has been making a series of misstep. He started making missteps when he expressed ignorance 30 hours after the National Intelligence Estimate said, no, Iran has no nuclear threat, Mike Huckabee hasn't heard of it. So, I mean, the question is, which of the Mike Huckabee missteps - he is unbelievably thinned skin, half of his campaign speeches are just answering his critics. The question is, do any of these - the collectivity of these missteps catch up with him here or is he - is Mitt Romney so dead in the water here that Huckabee wins despite the missteps and that sort of a clean slate going on in New Hampshire, a state, which I might mention, is the most secular and the least religious of any of the early primary caucus days.

PESCA: Quite a different dynamic. And Walter Shapiro, Washington bureau chief for Salon.com has been covering it all. He blogs about his experiences on the campaign trails called '08 Roadies. Thanks a lot, Walter. Great as always.

Mr. SHAPIRO: At least it has been fun. Thanks a lot.

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