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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

A new poll of likely caucus voters in Iowa indicate Mike Huckabee has opened up a lead over Mitt Romney in the state. The Des Moines Register poll has Rudy Giuliani a distant third.

On the Democratic side, the poll gives Barack Obama a slight edge over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but the race is still very close. One factor that seems to be driving the polling figures is the candidates' performance in debates.

NPR's political gurus Ron Elving and Ken Rudin have been looking into the relationship between the debates and the candidate's fortunes. And they join me now from Des Moines.

Hi, guys.

RON ELVING: Hello, Andrea.

KEN RUDIN: Hello, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Ron, let me go to you first. Catch us up on the weekend's events in Iowa. There was last night - The Brown and Black Forum.

ELVING: Yes. But probably, the two biggest stories in Iowa this weekend were the ice storm, which made life difficult for everyone. And the poll that you just mentioned that absolutely blew away everything else on the front page of the newspapers and has really been on everybody's lips since.

The candidates actually had two forums here yesterday. Both of them democratic oriented, and the first one was called the Presidential Heartland Forum. And a little over half the democratic field made it despite the weather. Hillary Clinton phoned in because she was having trouble getting there from New Hampshire, which she had gone to because of that hostage incident on Friday, as you recall.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

ELVING: And then, last night, as you mentioned, the Brown and Black Forum, which has been around since 1984 in the Iowa caucuses. Big event, oriented towards African-Americans, Hispanic Americans. And the candidates trying very hard to reach out to those particularly groups in an atmosphere in which there are some television coverage, but it's not being seen by everybody in the country.

SEABROOK: Ken, what happened in the debates that seemed to change the voter's minds in the polls later?

RUDIN: Let me say, Andrea, one quick thing about the polls, though. Four years ago, at this time, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were fighting for the lead. And people like John Kerry and John Edwards who finished first and second, were really in single digits. So we're still talking about a month out. We can't forget that. It is clear that Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee do seem to have momentum at this point. But, again, 30 days is a long time in caucus history.

SEABROOK: Sure.

RUDIN: Going back to what voters have seen in the debates, though, I think two interesting things have happened. One, Hillary Clinton - we were always talking about her inevitable march to the nomination, but she kind of faulted in this debate in Philadelphia at the end of October where she seemed unable to give a coherent answer on things like driver's license for illegal immigrants, things like that, and suddenly questions about her inability and electability came to the forefront.

On the Republican side, I think what we've seen in the poll and in the debates is that Mike Huckabee, while the frontrunners, you know, Giuliani and Romney are fighting and squabbling all that, he seems like - Huckabee, while he does have a good sense of humor, he seems like an adult in this whole thing. He's serious. He has detailed and reasoned(ph) answers, and I think the voters have finally come around to that, seeing that as well.

SEABROOK: So Ron, it seems like it's not so much about the candidates' overall performance in the debate, whether they won or lost the debate but, actually, like discreet sound bites that get picked up and run over and over again in the media.

ELVING: I think that's an accurate observation. People don't see the whole debate if they see any of the debate at all. Most people don't watch these events even if they're on CNN or one of the other more easily accessible cable channels or even if they were on regular broadcast television, most people don't watch them.

A few million is considered a very large audience out of a country of 300 million. So what they get instead is little snippets that they see in the paper, that they see on television, that they hear on the radio, and it has come through this strainer that gives them their impression of what really went on.

RUDIN: And even when you see in a debate something like a famous line that we'll remember, it doesn't always mean that it's going to affect the outcome of the election. We always remember Lloyd Bentsen saying to Dan Quayle, you know, you're no Jack Kennedy in the 1988 debate. But, ultimately, the Bush-Quayle ticket won 40 out of 50 states. So we remember the famous line, but they ultimately don't have to correspond with what happens in the election.

SEABROOK: Okay. So if so much is driven by the sound bites, what value is there to the so-called retail politics out there in Iowa, where you guys are and in New Hampshire, South Carolina, you know, the town meetings, the coffee shops, all that stuff?

RUDIN: Well, there's still two kinds of value, I'd say. I mean, one is that you're really meeting voters. You're really finding out what people are like and what they care about. So there's input value, if you will. The other thing is that as a presidential candidate, you do not want to appear, especially in Iowa or in New Hampshire, to be immune to that kind of interchange with the voters. You want to go out and seek that because you don't want people saying that you didn't. You don't want people saying, well, that person only put on ads and went to the big debates. They didn't get out and meet the people.

SEABROOK: I want to make sure we take a couple of seconds here and talk about the NPR debate, sponsored by NPR and Iowa Public Radio, coming up, Tuesday. Ron?

ELVING: This is going to be a little different from what people may be accustomed to. This is going to be a forum that focuses on the issues, that focuses on the issues in some depth. We're going to talk about Iran. We're going to talk about China. And we're going to talk about immigration. And then, of course, we'll also be taking some of our listeners' questions and proffering those to the Democratic candidates. We're having the Democrats in this particular debate, and we've invited all the Republicans to do the same, to come on and have a debate with three of our hosts, Steve Inskeep, Michele Norris and Robert Siegel.

RUDIN: Remember, four years ago, in our radio-only NPR debate, Dennis Kucinich stood up and held up a pie chart. I'm not sure if that's the most effective way to do a radio debate, but (unintelligible) the things that happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: NPR's political editor Ken Rudin and NPR's Washington editor Ron Elving. Stay dry out there in Iowa.

RUDIN: Thanks, Andrea.

ELVING: We'll do our best.

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