Countdown to the Caucuses

Iowa is preparing for its earliest ever presidential caucuses, with tight races among both Democrat and Republican contenders. Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register and Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post offer the latest news from Iowa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, we are remembering the end of a trans-Atlantic slave trade. The implication of slaves into the U.S. was outlawed 200 years ago this week. We're marking the event by talking about new scholarship about the world the slaves made.

But first: politics. Iowa will be holding its earliest-ever presidential caucuses tomorrow, January 3rd. It's the first official test for the candidates in the 2008 election. Polls show Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards in a tight race for first place on the Democratic side. And among the Republicans, formers governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas are in a dead heat.

With us now to talk about the latest on the race in Iowa are Kathie Obradovich, political editor for the Des Moines Register, and reporter Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post. They're both joining us from WOI in Des Moines.

Kathie and Jose, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KATHIE OBRADOVICH (Political Editor, Des Moines Register): Hi, Michel. Nice to be here.

Mr. JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS (Reporter, Washington Post): Hi.

MARTIN: Hi. Jose, now let's start very simply. Who has got the momentum?

Mr. VARGAS: Momentum, that seems to be the word that everybody wants. You know, the Des Moines Register just had its poll out, the latest polling out, and certainly, that put the momentum on Barack Obama's side. But certainly, at this point, looking at the various polls that are out there, I don't think anybody can actually claim momentum. I think it's going to depend a lot on turnout. So that's what everybody's going to be looking at.

MARTIN: Kathie, what do you think?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: I agree that momentum is a little bit on Barack Obama's side. After the poll, however, it is very close. Nobody's conceding. And it's really all about the ground game now. Every candidate has to get their supporters out to the caucuses. And I think we're headed for a big turnout caucus.

MARTIN: Now, Kathie, if you could give us a little bit of a primer here, I understand that the Democratic and Republican caucuses take place at the same time, but they actually run differently. Can you explain how each of them works, as briefly as you can? And talk a little bit especially about the Democratic side. As I understand, it requires a little bit more strategy on the part of the candidates.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: It does. And the Republican caucuses are really very simple. At their party meetings, people take a straw vote at the very beginning, and that's all there is to it. It's a simple vote for their candidate preference.

The Democrats have always had a slightly more complicated process. It's all about delegate selection. You have to have a certain percentage of supporters at each precinct caucus in order to have your candidate be viable. And if you're not viable, your supporters are invited to go caucus for somebody else or remain uncommitted.

So what happens is the people who - candidates who have few supporters often end up making deals. And we saw that yesterday with Dennis Kucinich, telling his supporters that if he is not viable at their caucuses, to caucus for Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Really? Why?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Yeah. He said that he is more in tune with Barack Obama than the other Democratic candidates. Four years ago, in Iowa, he did the same thing and sent his supporters to John Edwards. Kucinich has not had much of a presence in the state of Iowa. He would not be expected to be viable at very many caucuses.

MARTIN: Are there any other interesting deals afoot?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: That's the only one we've heard up so far. There very well could be others before the day is out.

MARTIN: How do people communicate this to their supporters? Do they - are these public? Do people make a public announcement? Do they - is it like a flash mob? Do they text message each other? How does it work?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Well, Dennis Kucinich sent out a press release, and then we all reported it, and that's about all it takes.

MARTIN: Okay. What about the Republicans? Jose, you talked about turnout. What are some of the things that people are doing to get their folks out? I know I would require a lot of hot chocolate, so that would be on my agenda.

Mr. VARGAS: Turnout is going to be really critical, I think, for the Republicans, just because Mike Huckabee is basically in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has spent a considerable amount of money in this state, and he's got a lot of organization in the state. Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, you know, he doesn't really have much of an organization to speak of.

Just a few months ago, people basically wrote him off. So it's going to depend a lot on - I was actually - I spent Sunday interviewing some people, some of the devout Evangelical churches around Des Moines. And it was interesting to note how many people have changed their minds from Romney to Huckabee. So it's going to be critical that those supporters actually turn out tomorrow night.

MARTIN: Kathie, what are some of the techniques that people use to get people out?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: I'm sorry, could you repeat that?

MARTIN: What are some of the ways that the candidates are working to get people out?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: There's a ton of ways that candidates are working to get people out. It ranges from the broad advertising that we're starting to see right now, to very personal connections. My mom was just telling me that she got a call from someone that she used to work with who came over to pitch her on Barack Obama. I mean, it's that kind of really personal connections that happen to try to get people out to the caucuses.

MARTIN: What about Edwards? I understand that he's making a particular appeal to rural voters.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Yeah, absolutely. This was his strategy in 2004. And it helped him a little bit because he spent a lot of time out in areas where there weren't as many - there's not as much competition. And part of the strategy there is that you can be viable with fewer people at a caucus. Party folks say that it does not give rural voters more weight than urban voters. But it is a situation where if you have, in a big urban caucus, a lot of people to be viable, it might be a little easier out in some of the rural areas.

MARTIN: Jose, what about the younger voters, or maybe people who haven't caucused before? Are there any special appeals being made to them?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, I mean, what's really interesting here is the kind of new technologies that the campaigns are using, especially Barack Obama. I mean, Barack Obama has basically exploded on the Web. He's in basically every social networking site you can think of. And not only that, he's really big on text messaging. That's something that he's been using, basically, since last fall.

And, for example, on caucus night, if you're in Des Moines somewhere, and you don't know where your precinct are, you can text message and say, where's my precinct? And somebody has actually going to live - live at Chicago headquarters - going to text message you back where your precinct is.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

Mr. VARGAS: That's pretty advanced technology.

MARTIN: And Kathie, I wanted to ask you that Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, hasn't contested Iowa. He seems to - his strategy seems to be waiting for bigger states like Florida. But is he still strong nationally? Are the Republicans talking about him at all? Is he a presence at all? You know what I mean? Does his presence at all affect the conversations people are having?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Well, he - because he has not campaigned in Iowa, he really has not been much of a factor. First of all, party activists in Iowa are protective of the caucuses, and they don't treat candidates well who don't come and ask for their votes. Rudy Giuliani only had 5 percent in the Register's poll over the weekend. He's not even going to be here on caucus night. He'll be in Florida, where I guess it's almost as cold as it is here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OBRADOVICH: And he…

MARTIN: Hard to believe.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: …so I do not expect him to be a big factor on caucus night.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with Kathie Obradovich, political editor for the Des Moines Register, and reporter Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post about the Iowa caucuses which are taking place tomorrow.

Jose, you've been writing about the fact - and I think you've been thinking about the fact - about the way the primary system works. And this, as we mentioned before, is the earliest that Iowa has ever held its caucus. What are your thoughts about that?

Mr. VARGAS: Well, actually, I mean - that's something that I'm thinking about in terms of participation in the caucuses. You know, I mean, what people are expecting is about 200 and maybe 230,000 caucus-goers, both Republicans and Democrats, are going to show up tomorrow night. This is a state of 2.9 million people. So if you do the math, that's about 12 percent. So basically, all this attention, all this money, all this hoopla that's been surrounding this caucuses that's been going on for about a year now is focusing on 12 percent of Iowans.

So I think that's really interesting in terms of the conversation that's also going on around, you know, is Iowa, you know, really representative of where the country is, for example, demographically? And there's - actually, just a couple of days ago, Governor Strickland over in Ohio just made a statement to the Columbus Dispatch saying that, you know, that this is not a Democratic way to have a system of primary. I think that's…

MARTIN: Well, that's certainly…

Mr. VARGAS: …definitely out…

MARTIN: I mean, certainly, the demographics over the fact that it's so at variance with the diversity of the rest of the country, both Iowa and New Hampshire. That's something that's been discussed, and party leaders have sort of tried to address that by moving other states up earlier in the process.

But Kathie, I don't know. I mean, what's the - give the other side of that argument. Why is that the Iowans feel that they deserve their primacy in this process?

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Well, first of all…

MARTIN: Besides their willingness to come out in the cold to do this, to give up their evenings when they could be watching reruns…

Ms. OBRADOVICH: A lot of what the Iowa caucuses have been about over the years is that it forces candidates to come and meet people in person. It's the grassroots side of politics. Candidates who do not have a lot of money or name recognition have a chance to become known in a state like Iowa, where if we started this process in Florida, it would all be about who had the most money to run advertising. We would not have anybody like Mike Huckabee, for example, on the Republican side this year. He would be nowhere if this process started in Michigan or Florida or California. And so that, primarily, I think, is the real reason why you want to start the process in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

And the other thing, too, about the diversity is that, absolutely, it's true. Iowa is a much older state and were much whiter state than the way the rest of the country looks. But if you people what issues they care about - the war in Iraq, on the Republican side, immigration, terrorism, the economy, health care. Those are all the same issues that rise to the top when you talk to voters nationally.

MARTIN: And speaking of…

Mr. VARGAS: Let me…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jose. Briefly.

Mr. VARGAS: Actually, let me actually add to that. Because I've been here since the 23rd. So I've been here for like about two weeks now and I've been to a lot of these rallies and a lot of these events. And yes, Iowans are definitely very knowledgeable about the issues that can almost see, you know, why the process is the way it is. So, let me make sure (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Okay. And very briefly, Kathie, we only have about a minute left. I wanted to say, talk about the recent assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, actually, a major international story. Is that on people's minds right now, or having - this having occurred a couple of days ago, are people sort of settling back in to the issues that are perhaps the most present for them, pocketbook issues for themselves? What do you think? Very briefly.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Well, people have always been engaged in concern about the war on terrorism. It's been a theme throughout the campaign, and that incident definitely flared it back up on the campaign trail at a time when the war in Iraq has sort of receded a little bit from the headlines. And - but, yeah, as we see the candidates making their final arguments, really, what they're talking about most is experience and the ability to cause change. And these are themes that really transcend behind any particular issue.

MARTIN: All right. Kathie Obradovich, political editor of the Des Moines Register, and reporter Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post, both joined us from WOI in Des Moines.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us, and stay warm.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: Thank you.

Mr. VARGAS: Thanks.

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