Presidential Race Comes Early to Primary States

Michele Norris talks with three newspaper writers and editors about how the presidential race is shaping up in early primary states: Molly Ball of the Las Vegas Review Journal, David Yepsen of The Des Moines Register and Felice Belman of The Concord Monitor.

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Unidentified Male #1: The primary elections in New Hampshire for delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions find candidates and campaign managers pulling no punches.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Can you believe it's that time again? We're a year out from the first presidential primaries and caucuses, shose critical tests that help determine who among the presidential pack is strong enough to make the run for a White House in 2008.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And this month a number of Democrats have put themselves forward or, in some cases, just extended the speculation.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Well, listen, I'm going to file today formally papers of candidacy. I want to skip this exploratory phase.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): That's why I want to tell you first that I'll be filing papers today to create a presidential exploratory committee.

Unidentified Male #2: On the sidelines, when are you you going get off the sidelines?

HILARY CLINTON (Senator, Democrat): Well, I'll firmly come back and talk to about that when a decision is made.

BLOCK: Those were Senators Chris Dodd on the Imus radio program, Barack Obama, and lastly Hilary Clinton on NBC, all this week. Others with hats in the ring include former Senator John Edwards, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and Representative Dennis Kucinich. And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is expected to make an announcement on Sunday.

NORRIS: Republicans has been so far a little less visible on the election. No one has officially announced yet, although Senator Sam Brownback will tomorrow, and others are expected soon.

Mr. RUDOLPH GULIANI (Former Mayor of New York): It will be sometime next year.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): It was said I would decide early next year, and I'll sit down over the holidays with my family and make that decision.

NORRIS: That was former New York Mayor Rudolph Guliani and Senator John McCain speaking before the holidays. Other names in the mix are Mitt Romney, Tommy Thompson and Tom Tancredo.

BLOCK: Iowa will hold the nation's first caucus a little under a year from now on January 14, 2008. Five days later, on the 19th, Nevada is holding its caucus. It's the first year that a Western state will play such an early role in picking the presidential nominees. New Hampshire still conducts the first primary election on January 22. And though it's still months away, presidential contenders and contemplators are busy making their presence known in those states.

NORRIS: Joining us to discuss the early primary field is David Yepsen, a columnist at the Des Moines Register. From New Hampshire, we're joined by Felice Belman. She's managing editor of the Concord Monitor. And Molly Ball is a political reporter with the Las Vegas Review Journal. Hello to all three of you.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Des Moines Register): It's good to be with you.

Ms. MOLLY BALL (Las Vegas Review Journal): Nice to be here.

Ms. FELICE BELMAN (Concord Monitor): Hi

Norris: First, I'd love to for each of you to help us understand, when the candidates swing through your states, what is it that they're doing?

Ms. BALL: This is Molly in Las Vegas. This I think is going be so hilarious to watch, because in Iowa, in New Hampshire, there's been the same diner, the same state fair, the same pancake breakfast people, every candidate has known that they had to go to for the last, you know, 40 years.

In Nevada, we have no idea what the events and places will be, so the Democratic Party is trying to help candidates know when some small town is having, you know, some kind of steer roping or whatever, and the candidates are trying to figure out what's the place where the locals hang out and I can shake hands and grip and grin, is it Bagel Mania?

NORRIS: Not to mention the mine field of of the perilous photo op in front of the casino or the -

Ms. BALL: Exactly, when you come through here, do you put a dollar in a slot just to show that, like, you're into it or do you avoid that? I don't know. Might depend on whether you're Sam Brownback or Chris Dodd.

NORRIS: David, what are the candidates doing in Iowa at this point?

Mr. YEPSEN: At this stage in the game, there are few public events, some forums and town halls, but even some of the photo op stuff is pretty limited. These are one on one things now, small groups, you try to - if you're a Republican you trying to court religious conservatives. If you're a Democrat, you're meeting with labor leaders. And so it's a lot of very low-key stuff at this stage.

NORRIS: We heard so much about Senator Barack Obama this week, forming the exploratory committee, potentially throwing his hat on the ring. Does he start at a relatively flat-footed state because he's not spent a lot of time in Iowa as a candidate?

Mr. YEPSEN: No. Polls show him right near the top. He campaigned three times here during the election campaign in '06, and each time he had huge crowds. I find it very interesting at that, when I go to a Barack Obama event - and it is like a rock concert - you see a lot of people there who are not traditionally involved in politics, and they see hope, they see something different in this candidate. Now he can harness that and turn it out a year from now on a cold January night in one of 2,000 precincts in this state, he would do very well.

NORRIS: And New Hampshire, what are candidates doing there?

Ms. BELMAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. We have Christopher Dodd. I just got his schedule yesterday. He's here Saturday and Sunday. He's doing a little bit of everything. He has a town hall meeting in Dover, New Hampshire. He's got a coffee at a small home in Henniker. He's got a breakfast with national Democratic activists. He's going to the celebration in the state senate just, where the Democrats did really well in November. He's doing the traditional stuff.

Ms. BELMAN: And it's funny, when Barack Obama was here in December, he - they rented out a huge hall and he was like a rock star, as David said, but his aides in New Hampshire are cautioning that that - the next time he make a trip it's not going to be like that at all. He's going to try to do all the grassroots stuff that everybody else is doing. We'll see if he can, if he can manage to pull off small events without attracting 150 national media like he did on his first trip.

NORRIS: It's early, one year before the primary season officially kicks off. I just want you to tell me quickly the issues that are most important at this point to the voters in each of your states.

Ms. BELMAN: Sure. This is Felice in New Hampshire. I think here we had so many startling upsets in the November election here - the Democrats took over the government for the first time since the 19th century - that is definitely felt like an anti-war message, and that's what definitely what people are talking about. It's almost all their talking about lately.

Mr. YEPSEN: I've seen polling of caucus goers in both parties, and in the Democratic side, the war hits about 50 percent among caucus goers who say that's the single most important issue they want addressed. That's just off the charts. You know, the next one is maybe the economy, down at 17 or 18 percent. Maybe in a year that'll change, but right now, it's all Iraq all the time.

NORRIS: Molly?

Ms. BALL: There's two trains of thought that I've heard. On the one hand, there's a hope that issues specific to the Western United States will suddenly become prominent. Candidates will suddenly have to talk about them when they come to Nevada. Issues like water rights and public lands and the kinds of things that you just don't encounter on the East Coast, where the political establishment is concentrated. Hispanic issues certainly.

At the same time, there's also the idea that caucus scores are caucus scores. These are Democratic partisans. They're your, you know, traditional liberal base. Their priorities are going to be those national issues like the war.

NORRIS: You know, those idiosyncratic issues - the right texture and often a lot of surprises in the campaign that can really throw at candidates ground game for a loop - are there sort of issues that present particular mine fields, issues that are important to voters in each of your states that are perhaps more of secure to the rest of the country? Yucca Mountain or immigration in Nevada -

Ms. BALL: Right.

NORRIS: - or ethanol, or agricultural appropriations in Iowa, for instance.

Ms. BALL: We always hear about the ethanol issue being the sort of litmus test in Iowa. And Yucca Mountain is definitely exactly the same in Nevada. This is the proposal to use a Nevada mountain site as a nuclear waste repository. It's been stalled for years, but it is the kind of thing that every candidate gets asked when they come here - are you against it, and if you're not, you can kiss your Nevada chances goodbye.

NORRIS: And David, how about ethanol in Iowa? Do all the candidates have to come with their ethanol briefing book in tow?

Mr. YEPSEN: Yeah, I think so. And I think the issue of renewable fuels is a huge one in this state. I think it's become more so around the country, though, as the nation tries to find some ways to achieve energy independence. And so they tend to package in the context of an energy issue.

I might also add, these are rank and file people in the party. And yes, they're concerned about ethanol or Yucca Mountain or the Iraq War, but they are also concerned about picking a horse that can win the presidency for their party. And in these early states, the question of can you win the White House is one that's always on the minds of the activists.

Ms. BELMAN: Felice in New Hampshire, yeah. And I think, you know, New Hampshire voters take their job as one of the early states so seriously, and I think David's just right that you don't want to squander that. There have been times when New Hampshire voters have sent what seemed like a protest message. I think, about the year that Pat Buchanan won in the New Hampshire Republican primary, it just seemed so crazy, especially considering how much this state has changed since then.

But so electibility is a big deal, and I think they look at John Kerry's experience last time with some trepidation.

NORRIS: One last question. It's been a long time since we've seen a wide-open field like this on both sides. Any predictions about the tenor of the campaigns?

Ms. BELMAN: Well, that's just right. There's no - it's a wide-open field. There's no president running for re-election. There's no vice president running. And so we've got more candidates than we do in most years, and I think that's also maybe why we're going to be inundated with people. But I think it'll take us a long while to get sick of it because there's so many names to get to know and go to hear, and it just seems like a really terrific race.

Mr. YEPSEN: And while there are a lot of candidates on both parties, I've got about a dozen people in each party that I'm keeping an eye on. There isn't really enough money available to all of them to continue to run viable campaigns. And I think we'll see some of them fall by the wayside when they can't put any more gas in the tank.

Ms. BALL: This is Molly in Las Vegas. I would say we've already seen a little bit of that thinning out happening, for example, in the case of Evan Bye.

NORRIS: Well, thanks to all three of you. It's been fun.

Ms. BALL: Thank you.

Ms. BELMAN: Thanks.

Mr. YEPSEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was David Yepsen, a columnist at The Des Moines Register, Felice Belman, managing editor with The Concord Monitor, and Molly Ball, a political reporter with The Las Vegas Review Journal.

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