ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Remember Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican? Well, after this week's Republican debate on CNN, we can amend that to: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican unless he's running against you in the presidential primaries.

It was a pretty nasty debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, but a good jumping off point for our political observers E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Rich Lowry of the National Review. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post; Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thank you so much.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (Editor, National Review): Thanks for having us.

SIEGEL: E.J., your thoughts on the Republicans and let me begin by noting that the emergence of Mike Huckabee in the Iowa polls only confirms what you observed in the column so early on that we've sent it out for carbon dating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: That's kind of you. Yeah, I did see Huckabee as a - somebody who could contend and he's lived up to that partly because he's out of Washington, because he's personable, because you couldn't, in some ways, get farther from this administration. He wasn't disloyal to the administration, but he wasn't like them. He's also one of the few Republicans who talks regularly about education and health care, and he's a Christian conservative. And they've been looking for a candidate and a lot of Christian conservatives think they've found their candidate in Huckabee.

But I think Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani really achieved a central objective this week - they discredited each other. It was a terrible night for both of them in effect because they went after each other so hard. And that long exchange about Romney hiring a company that may have hired illegal immigrants, I just don't think that made either of them look good. And so I think they -that was helpful to McCain and it was - John McCain and helpful to Mike Huckabee.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, you've written this month in the National Review about the grim truth that if the Republicans don't wise up, they stand to lose the White House and more, more seats in both Houses of Congress. From what you've seen in the Republican primary campaigns and in the debate, do any of the Republican presidential candidates seem to have this one figured out?

Mr. LOWRY: No, I don't think so. What's dismaying about these debates is, you know, it's - look, it's a tough fight. You're going to have people taking and throwing punches back and forth, it's just how backwards looking they are. It's all about who did what four or five years ago and that is just irrelevant to the concerns of voters today. So very few of these candidates or any of them arguably have really grappled with how to take conservative principles and policy and make them relevant to the concerns right now. It's instead who hired illegal aliens two or three years ago and who allegedly had a sanctuary city in New York City four or five years ago.

SIEGEL: But I think, as you wrote in the National Review, name an issue, the Democrats win on it. The Democrats are just incredibly better positioned in terms of issues that people are concerned about.

Mr. LOWRY: That's true. One exception to that is immigration. Now the potential liability there for Republicans, as E.J. has pointed out, is going too far. They need to seem anti-illegal immigration and in favor of enforcing the borders without actually seeming anti-immigrant. That's a very important tonal thing to get right and I don't think they've always been on the right side that line during this campaign.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that's totally right. I think that what came across in that debate was just a real harshness about immigrants. And they're going to lose - they already started losing in the 2006 election some of the gains that President Bush made by being very open to immigration reform and campaigning hard for Latino votes. But I think this was a watershed. Governor Tim Kaine likes to talk about - the governor of Virginia…

SIEGEL: Governor of Virginia, yeah.

Mr. DIONNE: …likes to talk about break-glass-in-case-of-fire issues. And Republicans want immigration to be that issue that's going to pull them out of this mess that they're in. And it looks like they're ready to jump on it and use it at any way they can. And that that could become very ugly because it begins to look like sort of wedge politics, let's blame illegal immigrants for all our problems. Maybe it will work but it's going to be awfully ugly.

SIEGEL: Save a couple of minutes here for the Democrats. Rich Lowry, you see anything interesting happening on the Democratic side?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, sure, I mean the big story for the last couple of weeks is just how the Hillary coronation has stopped, not that there, I think, ever realistically was going to be one. Although she - but for 90 days, she had this golden period as any candidate is ever going to have in presidential politics and that was mostly because Barack Obama was not very aggressive and confrontational in taking her on. That changed. And now there's a real dog fight in Iowa.

SIEGEL: But she still polls ahead of everybody nationally on the Democratic side, though.

Mr. LOWRY: That's correct. But - if she wins Iowa, you know, it's off to the races. If she doesn't, then it could be a really drawn-out and potentially damaging experience even if she does get the nomination.

SIEGEL: E.J., do you sense any different view of Obama in the Clinton camp? Do they take him more seriously now than they did before?

Mr. DIONNE: Oh, they clearly do. I think what shows that Rich is right about the shift in the race is that the Clinton campaign has been much more aggressive against Obama. Mrs. Clinton herself has challenged him more directly. And, you know, the tipping point was this Washington Post poll/ABC poll out of Iowa, which showed Obama with a four-point lead over Clinton. Now, that wasn't a huge shift, but it really kind of changed the psychology and the chemistry of the race. And the Clinton people really do not want to lose Iowa. And especially, they don't want to get clobbered in Iowa. Because while they're very, very strong in New Hampshire - the Clintons have a history in New Hampshire - a bad loss in Iowa could blow that all the way.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, the last word and a quick one.

Mr. LOWRY: The key change in that poll wasn't necessarily the horserace number in that Iowa poll. It was the internal that said Iowa Democrats and a reversal from earlier in the year now valued change more than strength or experience. If that holds true for Democrats across the country, Hillary is in a big - has a big problem on her hands.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, E.J. Dionne, thank you both very much for talking politics with us once again.

Mr. LOWRY: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR and Iowa Public Radio, by the way, will host a Democratic candidate debate live on Tuesday from Des Moines. My colleagues, Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep and I will be the hosts of the event, and we hope that you'll join us.

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