RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

We are three days away from the Iowa caucuses. Tomorrow it will be two, then one, then finally, finally, voters, there, will have their say. And if you believe the polls, there are no obvious outcomes for either party.

We've called in our political brain trust on this New Year's Eve morning. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and political editor Ken Rudin to let us know how things stand at this very moment.

Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Mara, let's start with you, if you don't mind. Give us a quick overview of the Republican side?

LIASSON: Well, Mitt Romney, who had been the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire, is now fighting off two serious challenges: one from Huckabee, in Iowa, who managed to surge above him in the polls; and John McCain in New Hampshire, and he's running negative ads against both of them. And there is some evidence that at least in Iowa against Huckabee those ads are working where Huckabee's rise in some polls seems to have stalled.

Now, the dirty little secret about negative ads is that, even though voters in Iowa, in particular, say they don't like them at all, the fact is they do work - especially against someone who's not as well-known like Huckabee. And in the Republican field in Iowa where the other candidates are way behind, there's less danger that those kinds of negative ads would boomerang against Romney and help a third candidates. Now that's not the case on the Democratic side.

MONTAGNE: Now, Mara, I notice you didn't mention the name of the front-runner, the national front-runner, Rudy Giuliani.

LIASSON: Well, he is the shrinking national front-runner, I guess. He is the forgotten man in this race because he's not really competing in Iowa. He is employing this very unusual strategy of kind of waiting for Florida. He has staked his campaign on starting to win on January 29th in Florida, and then the big states on February 5th. The big question that everyone has is that can he afford to lose Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, all those states and then start winning quite late in the game. But, right now, at least in this first inning, he is the forgotten man.

MONTAGNE: Ken, turning to you. What's the state of play on the Democratic side?

RUDIN: Well, unlike the Republicans, at least, in Iowa it seems to be the same three names we've been hearing for the last couple of weeks, if not the last couple of months: John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton. There was a Mason-Dixon poll release yesterday that had Edwards, 24, Clinton 23, Obama 22. You can't get much closer than that.

And unlike the Republican side, the Democrats seemed to be more nervous about going, launching negative attacks. I guess they fear that what happened in 2004, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were seen as the front-runners. They got in up into this scrap - this personal thing. They brought each other down and elevated people like John Kerry and John Edwards who did very well in Iowa.

The buzz seems to be about John Edwards. Polls show that among the veteran caucus goers, people who've attended the caucus in the past, he seems to be doing the best. He seems to be the number two choice of many candidates. And that's very important because, you know, we keep talking about experience and, you know, if you look at Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, they have tons of experience but they're really, right now, fighting it out among - for fourth place. So if the supporters of Dodd, Richardson and Biden have to go somewhere else, if they're not viable in the first round of the caucuses, they may look for another candidate, and that candidate could be Edwards.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the major news story that would have hit all of these candidates in a way, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, of course, former prime minister and opposition leader in Pakistan. This would have seen to have presented an opportunity to the candidates to show how they'd react to a big unexpected event with potentially major foreign policy implications. How did they respond?

LIASSON: Well, it was an opportunity, Renee. They all tried to show off their foreign policy credentials, turn it to their advantage. John Edwards managed to call Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, and insist that he continue on the path to democratization. But for some other candidates, they got into - they had a little bit of problems. Huckabee, for example, tried to tie the assassination to the immigration problem, talking about the large numbers of Pakistanis who come over the - our southern border. And that was roundly criticized by his rivals in the Republican field.

And Barack Obama, his campaign manager, his chief strategist David Axelrod, tried to tie the assassination back to the vote on the Iraq war, which, of course, is the biggest difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, saying that voting for the war distracted attention from fighting al-Qaida and the problems in Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: Ken, we just got seconds to go here. We'll just wrap this up with a, sort of, odd a thought at the end: Democrats, Republicans meeting in Oklahoma next week to discuss a possible independent candidacy. Who would that be?

RUDIN: Well, it could be Michael Bloomberg, and more importantly, it could be his $500 million that the rumors are that he could put towards an independent candidacy. There's a meeting in Oklahoma City on January 7th, the day before the New Hampshire primary where Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, Chuck Hagel. Democrats and Republicans, both, are looking at the possibility that if this campaign continues to be ugly, there might be a third option.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both, political editor Ken Rudin, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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