This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Yet another debate tonight for the Republican presidential contenders, this one in Sioux City, Iowa. A flurry of recent polls show Newt Gingrich assuming the lead in Iowa with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul trailing behind him.

Joining me with his thoughts on the campaign so far and the mood of Iowa caucus goers is the state's Republican Governor Terry Branstad. He's in his fifth term as governor and joins me from Des Moines. Governor Branstad, welcome to the program.

GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: Well, thank you very much. I'm excited to be back as governor. And this is a very exciting time in Iowa with the caucuses coming up here on January 3rd.

BLOCK: Well, exciting and volatile. Have you ever seen a Republican primary campaign as volatile and crazy as this one has been?

BRANSTAD: No. This is probably the most volatile one we've ever had. I think a lot of people are paying attention to the debates. And so, a lot of activity going on and I think there's still a lot of undecided voters. Primarily, I think they're looking for who they think would be the strongest candidate and have the best chance to get America's financial house in order.

I think most Americans realize that if we don't change directions, we're going be where Europe is today. And this trillion-dollar increase in the national debt we've had every year since Obama became president is not affordable or sustainable.

BLOCK: Governor Branstad, if you look at a graph of the poll data there in Iowa and elsewhere around the country, it really does look like a crazy quilt. I mean, you see Michele Bachmann up and then down. Rick Perry comes into the race. He's up, then he's down. Herman Cain skyrockets, then plummets completely out of contention. What do you think it says about the Republican field that so many candidates have been hoisted up as the next big thing and then tank very quickly?

BRANSTAD: I think part of it is people are looking for the perfect candidate and I think they've now come to the realization there isn't such a thing as the perfect candidate. You need to choose the one you think is the best. And the number one issue in this state is the financial mess America is in. Number two is creating private sector jobs.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about what's going on with the Newt Gingrich campaign. It was just a few months ago that that campaign was largely given up for dead. His staff had resigned on mass and now he's leading the pack, at least for now. What happened? Why do you think he's been catching on?

BRANSTAD: Well, first of all, I think he's campaign got off to a bad start because of his criticism of Congressman Paul Ryan, and a lot of people thought that was very unfair. Then he took this long vacation. But he's performed very well in the debates and people see him as an idea person, but there's also some concern about some of the baggage he has from, you know, previous things that have happened.

BLOCK: Do you think his three marriages, his admitted affairs, will hurt him among Iowa's many evangelical caucus goers?

BRANSTAD: Well, I think he handled that question very well in the debate at Drake University. I was there in the audience. And he basically acknowledged he'd made mistakes. He is now happily married. He's a grandfather. I thought he handled it very well, but he acknowledged the reality of it and there are concerns about it. There's also concerns about the fact that he's taken some positions they don't feel really are in tune with core conservative beliefs.

BLOCK: Governor Branstad, what about Ron Paul? How do you assess his strengths in your state? He has spent a lot of time putting a solid organization in place there, which is so key in the format of the caucuses.

BRANSTAD: I think one of the things that's really caused Ron Paul to have a lot of appeal is he has consistently pointed out the financial calamity of the deficit spending and the mismanagement. And so that's the number one issue. There is, however, among many people, concern about his foreign policy positions. A lot of us are concerned that we think he takes kind of an isolationist or a naive approach to the real threats in the world.

BLOCK: And what about Ron Paul's organizational strength there in Iowa? Do you think that could contribute maybe to a surprise on January 3rd?

BRANSTAD: Well, that could be very helpful because, as I travel the state, he's got more yard signs, he's got more bumper stickers. He has got a strong organization.

BLOCK: Governor, you've criticized Mitt Romney for not spending enough time and energy in Iowa. What's your message to him right now?

BRANSTAD: Well, first of all, he has, in the last couple of weeks, really put a lot more effort here. He's opened a campaign office. He had some very significant people helping him. He's also doing significant advertising here now. So, I think Romney's gotten in the game a little late, but he is making a strong effort here in Iowa, here in the closing days.

BLOCK: What does it say to you that the candidates who spent the most time in Iowa, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, are near the bottom of the heap in the polls there? It doesn't seem to have paid off.

BRANSTAD: Well, it'll - it's not over until it's over.

BLOCK: Yeah.

BRANSTAD: And the only poll that really counts is the one they take on caucus night. I'm reserving judgment. I think it's a wide-open race and we'll have to see what happens.

BLOCK: Governor Branstad, thanks for being with us.

BRANSTAD: You're welcome. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Governor Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa. He spoke with us from Des Moines.

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