RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We're just about a week from the first contest in the presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all have Iowa events scheduled today. Ted Cruz plans to be on the ground there tomorrow, and that there is the list of front runners.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to chew over that list. And I'll throw in former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg toward the end.
Mara, good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Now let's start with the Republicans. Looking at the polling averages, Donald Trump is in the lead in Iowa, 29 percent to about 26 percent for Ted Cruz. Can someone else pull an upset here?
LIASSON: I think that would be very, very difficult. I think it will be one of those, Trump or Cruz, in Iowa. Cruz was leading. He has a lot of support from Iowa's well-organized Christian conservatives but then Trump unleashed a relentless series of attacks on him and his numbers dropped.
Plus, Cruz is a small-government conservative. And because of that, he's against Iowa's sacred ethanol subsidy, so Governor Terry Branstad has come out against him, and Iowa senator Chuck Grassley recently introduced Trump at a rally.
MARTIN: The race in Iowa is echoed in South Carolina. And the choice Republicans see in those two races, between Trump and Cruz, seems to be weighing heavily on the party writ large, right?
LIASSON: Oh, you betcha, as Sarah Palin (laughter) would say. And Sarah Palin endorsed Trump this week.
The GOP establishment, in particular, is facing a pick-your-poison kind of decision. Many establishment Republicans dislike Cruz personally. He has no Senate endorsements, and you have establishment figures like Bob Dole, K Street Republicans like Trent Lott, saying Trump would be more flexible. They could work with him. They think that Cruz would be like Barry Goldwater. He'd lose in a landslide and pull the party down with him. They'd lose Senate and House seats.
On the other side, you have the conservative intelligentsia - magazines like National Review, which has a big anti-Trump issue; Weekly Standard editor, conservative talk show hosts - they're mounting a big anti-Trump effort, pro-Cruz effort because they think Trump is dangerous and he's not qualified to be commander in chief. As one conservative intellectual said to me - he said if the choice is between Stalin and Hitler, I'd pick Stalin, meaning Ted Cruz because he's more predictable. So there's real civil war inside the Republican Party.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about this idea of the establishment and where it's at right now. When Republicans talk about the establishment these days, it's laced with a little bit of derision in some camps. If there is such a thing as a Republican establishment right now, what's its state?
LIASSON: Well, its state is pretty bad. Jeb Bush was supposed to be the establishment candidate, but he didn't catch on. And the extraordinary thing about this Republican primary is that the establishment, moderate wing of the party has sidelined itself. They're not coalescing around one candidate as they have in the past. The Republican Party, right now, is a conservative populist party.
You have Trump and Cruz battling it out, and the moderate establishment candidates like Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich - they have formed a circular firing squad. They're not attacking Cruz or Trump. They're attacking each other. And at least in New Hampshire, their support altogether is greater than Trump and Cruz's, so it shows you that if they could unite behind one candidate, maybe Marco Rubio who recently got the Des Moines Register endorsement - he might get a third place finish in Iowa. That shows you that the establishment maybe could make a difference.
MARTIN: Let's turn to Democrats. They started the campaign season with this presumptive front-runner in Hillary Clinton and then Bernie Sanders happened. What do you see? What's the lesson you draw in the momentum he's got right now?
LIASSON: Well, the lesson is that voters in both parties are in a very anti-establishment, populist mood. Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. She just got the Des Moines Register endorsement, which traditionally has not been a very good indicator of the eventual Democratic nominee. But Hillary Clinton is also not a very exciting, inspiring candidate to a lot of the left-leaning Democratic base, especially in Iowa.
MARTIN: Which is why Michael Bloomberg apparently sees an opening at this point? Just briefly.
LIASSON: Yes, I think so. I think it depends on whether the Republicans - who the Republicans and Democrats nominate. Bloomberg aides says he's more likely to run if it's Trump or Cruz versus Sanders, then there would, presumably, be space in the middle for him. But he's less likely to go if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. And he is said to be planning to make his decision by March.
MARTIN: Mara Liasson - thanks so much, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.