Candidates Seek Edge in Iowa, New Hampshire

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The list of 2008 presidential hopefuls who are campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire is growing. And that has Republicans and Democrats sifting through the candidates' positions and taking stock of their backgrounds. Michele Norris talks with Felice Belman, managing editor of The Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H., and David Yepsen, columnist at The Des Moines Register in Iowa.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With Mitt Romney and all the other presidential hopefuls cruising through the early contest states, we thought it was a good time to check in with a couple of political watchers there.

Felice Belman is the managing editor of The Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire, and David Yepsen is a political columnist at The Des Moine Register in Des Moine, Iowa. Hello to both of you.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (The Des Moine Register): Good to be with you.

Ms. FELICE BELMAN (The Concord Monitor): Hi.

NORRIS: Over the weekend, Democrats seemed to dominate the headlines on both of your states, Iowa and New Hampshire. I'm interested in knowing how Republican hopefuls are doing. And I want to begin with you, Felice, what's going on there?

Ms. BELMAN: Well, you're right. We've had lots of visits from lots of Democratic candidates over the last few days. Tomorrow, Mitt Romney will be in the state for the first time since his announcement. And people are really excited about his visit, as long as it doesn't get snowed out. And they're still shopping around. I mean, I think Giuliani got a big reception when he was here. McCain has lots of from when he ran last time in New Hampshire.

So the Republicans are anxious to hear from these folks and anxious, maybe, to change the subject from President Bush's unpopularity in the state.

NORRIS: And Mitt Romney, will he have a natural advantage in New Hampshire as a former governor of a neighboring state?

Ms. BELMAN: Yeah. You know, he was the governor of Massachusetts. Massachusetts's candidates tend to do well in New Hampshire. He also has a sort of palatial summer place in New Hampshire, so he's a neighbor. But I think they want to hear more from him before signing on, on issues like abortion and gay rights and financial issues, too.

NORRIS: And some of the other candidates, McCain, Giuliani? I understand Giuliani had quite a reception when he was at the palace theater.

Ms. BELMAN: Yeah. That was fun. And I think people are waiting to see what McCain is all about. It's a very different kind of campaign than he ran here in 2000, when he was the outsider and people are skeptical of his support for the president's troop surge and his position on the war, which is not a popular position in New Hampshire and lots of other places as well. From Giuliani, I think they're concerned about, you know, is he conservative enough. The people who will vote in a Republican primary in New Hampshire are pretty conservative. Independents can vote in either primary, and it seems like many of them are going to vote Democratic this time.

NORRIS: David, I want to head to Iowa. How much time are Republican candidates spending in your state, and who are they targeting when they touchdown there?

Mr. YEPSEN: In recent weeks, they had not spent a lot of time here. Mitt Romney has been here, probably, the most of any, and he's back on his announcement tour. They're targeting fiscal conservatives. They are targeting conservatives. There's a real tussle going on inside the Republican organizational establishment for which candidate can appeal best to the social conservatives, while at the same time reaching a general election electorate.

So you have an argument between Sam Brownback and Mitt Romney and John McCain over who's the most conservative on social issues. They're also spending a lot of time courting key staff people. Rudy Giuliani has not been here a lot. He has hired former Congressman Jim Nussle, who was the Republican candidate for governor in the last election, to sort of get things started here.

While he leads in the polls among Iowa Republicans, I think a lot of people don't think that he could run very well here among activist Republicans because he's too liberal on those social issues.

NORRIS: You know, in your column in today's paper, that Mitt Romney has to negotiate some tricky shoals - that's how you describe it - because of his changing stance on abortion and a few other issues. And one of the candidates, Sam Brownback, has actually said that he's flip-flopped so much that it would make John Kerry blush. How is he handling that?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, he admits flat and right upfront that has changed his position on abortion, from a pro-choice to a pro-life stance, and he says that any executive who can't or won't change their mind deserves to be fired, so he tries to turn it into an asset. He's got some trouble, I think on some other issues, for example, the nuances on civil rights for gays and lesbians versus gay marriage. I think his opponents are trying to trip him up, and that's why I think he's got to negotiate these shoals. Because at the - on the one head, he's got to appeal to social conservatives, but at the same time, he's got to appeal to a broader electorate in later primaries and hopefully, he hopes, in the general election.

NORRIS: David, Felice, a question for both of you. What is the mood at this point among voters? It's still early, but at this point, are they looking for an outsider, a fresh face, or do they want someone who has more experience in Washington, someone that can steer the country through some very difficult times?

Ms. BELMAN: I went to hear Hillary Clinton on Saturday and Senator Obama last night, and those are, you know, two very different candidates. The way you just described it. One, fresh face, one very familiar to us. The crowds in both cases were very just excited to be there and very excited to be hearing someone other than President Bush. I mean, these were Democratic crowds, obviously, but hugely attended events - so far out from the actual vote that that feels new. And there was really high energy, almost independent from what the candidates themselves are saying and doing.

Mr. YEPSEN: In Iowa, I think the Democrats are energized. Barack Obama got 5,000 people to show up at his initial foray in his announcement tour. I've never seen a crowd that big for an announcement tour. And I've been covering these caucuses for 30 years. They're angry about the war and the Bush administration, and they are really excited about finding a winner. They want a winner. Electability is always an issue.

On the Republican side, I think that Republicans are in real down mood. I think they're very dispirited. They took a hit in the '06 elections. Their crowds aren't this big. Their mood seems to be much more somber and not very upbeat, frankly.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you, always good to talk to you.

Mr. YEPSEN: Thank you.

Ms. BELMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Felice Belman, managing editor of The Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire, and David Yepsen, a columnist at The Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

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