SCOTT SIMON, host:

With Iowa caucusing and New Hampshire voting just after the first of the year, all the candidates are trying to set the right tone for campaigning during the holidays.

Several campaigns have done Christmas ads. Both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus - not to compare the two - have been mentioned, but so far they haven't made any endorsements.

With us from WBUR in Boston, we're joined by our old friends. Democratic analyst Dan Payne. Dan, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DAN PAYNE (Democratic Political Analyst): Good to be with you.

SIMON: And Republican analyst Todd Domke.

Mr. TODD DOMKE (Republican Political Analyst): Nice to be with you.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you for making the time for us, (unintelligible) is a busy season for you and always. And let me ask. Christmas coming just days before caucus and then primary elections. Does Christmas just get in the way of what was looking like a perfectly good hockey brawl?

Mr. PAYNE: We'll never know whether Christmas is a good time to campaign in Iowa because all the candidates are campaigning in Iowa. They've all got TV commercials. They're all making personal appearances, sending out e-mails, doing phone calls. Even Fred Thompson is campaigning heavily.

SIMON: What are the special challenges of campaigning to the holidays?

Mr. DOMKE: Well, the holiday campaign really is disguised. It's feel-good advertising, so the TV spots now are basically Hallmark cards. And like Hallmark cards, you know, they're sentimental or humorous. Or on the case of Hillary spot, allegedly humorous. But…

SIMON: Now, this is where Senator Clinton is opening up gift tags and saying things like universal health care. And that sort of…

Mr. DOMKE: Yes. She can't wait to play Santa Claus.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Where did I put universal Pre-K? Ah, there it is.

Mr. DOMKE: It goes right into the Republican view of liberalism there. But the tactics, despite the holidays, are just as political. They're just trying to show the candidates in a positive light. I mean, candidates are out there.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what I'll refer to as this neighboring state stuff. People say, well, of course, Mitt Romney is supposed to run well in New Hampshire. He's from a neighboring state. Or, I just heard Senator Clinton say, of course, Barack Obama is supposed to run well in Iowa. He's from a neighboring state. Is any of that stuff true?

Mr. DOMKE: Well, it helped Romney that he was from neighboring state, New Hampshire. But right now, it seems like Romney is unraveling. He canceled an appearance in New Hampshire, apparently not wanting to face questions about his false claim that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. PAYNE: Let me just interrupt quickly. Romney, in an attempt to explain this, said, well, you know, when I said I saw, I didn't mean it literally saw him. Of course, his father wasn't even in a march with Martin Luther King. But, Romney goes on to say, well, it's kind of like if the Patriots won the World Series, I could say I've seen it, but I didn't have to be there.

SIMON: Well, he say the World Series?

Mr. PAYNE: He said the World Series. I mean, he alienated football fans and baseball fans in one comment.

Mr. DOMKE: But right now, he's the only one with attack ads in Iowa during the Christmas season. He may be hurting Huckabee by doing it, but he's also hurting himself.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Two former governors, two good family men, both pro-life, both support a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage. The difference? Mitt Romney stood up and vetoed in-state tuition for illegal aliens, opposed drivers' licenses for illegal…

Mr. DOMKE: I think Romney is cheering up these days for good reason, you know? It's like he's seen the ghost of Christmas future and it's not Mitt Romney in the White House.

SIMON: Well, what you're feeling now as to the cumulative effect of Iowa and New Hampshire, whatever the results are, because there was a lot of debate about this a year ago as to whether or not these first two caucus and primary election, whether the influence should be diminished because so many states are coming within a couple of weeks. So many large states. Well, what you're feeling now?

Mr. PAYNE: The parties have lost control of the calendar. There are only five days between Iowa and New Hampshire because the calendar had to be crushed together. So I don't see how this situation is going to last another four years. I think it'll be changed and it should be changed.

Mr. DOMKE: With so many candidates - seven now in both parties - and so many undecided voters, and with so many polls showing it so close, you probably need to use chaos theory to analyze it all - there are so many possibilities. But we can predict that the Iowa voters will win all the field.

Mr. PAYNE: Well, the other thing is that the fact there are only five days between Iowa and New Hampshire means that the candidates have no time to reinvent themselves or to rearrange their message. You got to stick with what got you there. And the bump that the winner gets in Iowa, the traditional boost in the polling, will probably be magnified. It'll turn him or her into a rock star in New Hampshire for a couple of days.

SIMON: Let me bring up what has been Mayor Giuliani's strategy, perhaps until recently, which is not ignore but not invest a lot of resources in New Hampshire and Iowa on the theory that the really big states are coming up within three and four weeks after that, and he was looking pretty good there in states like Florida, obviously, New York, California, Illinois, in the Republican side. What do you think of that theory now? If he washes out entirely in Iowa, New Hampshire, can he credibly go on to win Florida and other major states that are just over the horizon?

Mr. DOMKE: Well, even though Giuliani has lowered our expectations of what he should do in the early states, he still probably needs to finish third in Iowa and second or third or at least the strong fourth in New Hampshire, and then again, be in the top three in South Carolina to then be in a position as someone who's supposedly has national appeal to them be viable. But that's not going to be easy because with so much focus on the others, it's a real question.

Right now, the Republican race - it's like watching a merry-go-round. You know, we started off seeing McCain as the frontrunner and then he moves by and Giuliani is the new frontrunner, and then Thompson appears but goes out of sight. Romney goes by then Huckabee, and now, McCain right now, seems to be emerging. He's coming on strong not just with endorsements and not just in polls, but there's a feeling of momentum, and not just in New Hampshire with McCain. Many are now coming back to him.

Mr. PAYNE: It's deja vu all over again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOMKE: That's right.

Mr. PAYNE: He's got the bus. He's doing the straight-talk express again. He's got the press sitting around waiting for his quips and his comments. I mean, he must feel like this is 2000 all over again.

Mr. DOMKE: The timing is very good for him. If this, you know, had been two weeks later, it might be a little too late to pull it out in New Hampshire. But right now, the timing is good.

SIMON: Yeah, it would be amazing because if John McCain were to prevail or at least come close to prevailing or certainly went strong in New Hampshire and Iowa, people like you would be able to say, well, that's what I told you a year ago…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …forgetting that four months ago you said he's gone.

Mr. DOMKE: Well that's right. Exactly.

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. It's entirely possible that the matchup we heard at the very beginning of this campaign - Hillary versus McCain - winds up being the matchup in the general election.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. PAYNE: You're welcome.

Mr. DOMKE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Todd Domke, Republican analyst; Dan Payne, a Democratic analyst, speaking from Boston.

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