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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Des Moines, Iowa.

The first state to make a presidential choice is overwhelmingly white. But Iowa, like much of the nation, is changing. And over the weekend this Midwestern state hosted a distinctive presidential debate. Democrats attended the Sixth Iowa Brown and Black Forum. In a moment, we'll hear how one Republican candidate is addressing religion.

We begin with NPR's David Greene, who joins us in this room in Des Moines, where we will be hearing from Democratic candidates in an NPR debate on Tuesday.

And David, what did you hear in this debate over the weekend that you haven't heard before?

DAVID GREENE: Well, this forum, it's an Iowa tradition, Steve. It covers issues that are important to African-American and Hispanic voters. So the candidates were asked to talk about issues we don't always hear that much about, and some real policy differences started to come out. You know, we were dealing with the question of whether to normalize relations with Cuba.

Chris Dodd says that's a good idea. Hillary Clinton came out and said that's a bad idea unless there are a lot of changes in Cuba. We talked about sentencing guidelines for people who are convicted of selling crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. And Hillary Clinton stood alone in saying that if sentencing guidelines are changed so that the sentences for those two types of drugs are similar, then people who were convicted and are facing these long, long sentences for crack cocaine should not retroactively be let out of prison, which is a big question.

And also it had a different feel to it. I mean Iowans don't like negative attacks, and the candidates, you know, seemed to be a little more restrained than usual. John Edwards actually had a moment during this forum where he said to Barack Obama that our two voices are stronger as one than if we're speaking separately. And Hillary Clinton was standing right there, and it was just a fascinating moment for those two candidates to share something onstage.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the sentencing guidelines, which is a big deal among some African-American voters because you have a question where crack dealers or users, who are more likely to be African-American, are facing tougher sentences. And Iowa - African-American voters may not be a huge factor, but obviously the African-American vote will be big for Democrats later on.

GREENE: Certainly big. It's important to Iowans, certainly big nationwide. And Hillary Clinton's decision to say that these people who are in prison for selling crack cocaine should not be released from prison retroactively if the sentencing guidelines are changed was seen as perhaps preparing for some Republican attacks, that if she is indeed the nominee, she wants to be prepared for the possibility of Republicans going after her and saying that, you know, the Democratic nominee is weak on crime.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about a poll that tries to gauge her chances of becoming the nominee, or at least the winner in Iowa. The Des Moines Register had some numbers out over the weekend.

GREENE: They did. And nothing brand new, because these poll numbers on both sides sort of confirm the trends that we were seeing. On the Republican side, it showed Mike Huckabee with about a five percentage point lead over Mitt Romney, who had been the leader in Iowa. And on the Democratic side, we have this very tight three-way race: John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But even though it's within the margin of error, notable that Barack Obama now has a few percentage points lead over Hillary Clinton. So some changes.

INSKEEP: Even though we have reported somewhat on Mike Huckabee's surge in Iowa, the former Arkansas governor, there will be some people saying, Mike Huckabee? How is he ahead?

GREENE: That's exactly right. And he's a fascinating political figure because he's doing very well in Iowa. There are a lot of evangelical voters who seem to be coming to his side. But if we leave Iowa and look at polls in states like South Carolina, New Hampshire, some of the national polls, Mike Huckabee really isn't making much of a move at this point. So if he does well in Iowa, the question will be: is that enough to give a candidate like Huckabee momentum, even though he has not much recognition in other states at this point and also not much money?

INSKEEP: Who's slipping?

GREENE: Well, Hillary Clinton took a bit of a slip. I mean not significantly, because she's still in the statistical dead heat. And then Mitt Romney really faces a big challenge now that perhaps he didn't expect. This was supposed to be his state in the eyes of this campaign, and now he's behind, which is pretty incredible.

INSKEEP: And because he's not very high in the national polls, Romney has been depending on a win in Iowa or a win in New Hampshire, or both.

GREENE: Depending on it is putting it mildly. Mitt Romney's whole game plan was to win in Iowa. He's invested so much money here, so much attention. He's not running in the lead in the national polls, so if Romney does not win here, if he falls behind Huckabee, it's a much tougher road for him, no doubt.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Greene here in Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Steve.

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