MICHELE NORRIS, host:
So, today is really the start of a White House political countdown - the first Tuesday in November. And one year from now, Americans will go to the polls and elect the 44th president of the United States. And the battle over just who that president will be is starting to intensify.
To get a sense of how that race is shaping up, we're joined now by two political watchers. Lisa Schiffren is a contributor to National Review, and Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial board member at the Washington Post.
Welcome to both of you.
Ms. RUTH MARCUS (Columnist and Editorial Board Member, Washington Post): Hi.
Ms. LISA SCHIFFREN (Contributor, National Review): Thank you.
NORRIS: Let's begin first with the Democrats and the stepped-up attacks against the front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not unusual for the candidates to pile up and pile on the candidate that's at the front of the pack, but when that that candidate happens to be a woman, how does that change the equation, Ruth?
Ms. MARCUS: Well, we're going to find out actually because you did see some piling in the last debate and you've seen it since. And you saw some push back from the piling, and there were kind of very careful suggestions without exactly saying so that these guys were being mean to her, but she's a strong woman and came through it. And there's upsides to that and downsides to that. She doesn't want to - it's pretty dangerous, if you want to be the commander in chief, to sort of present yourself as the victim when somebody starts to shove you a little bit.
On the other hand, it did help her in a couple of ways. First of all, it deflected attention from the gaffs or stumbles at least that she had in the debate. And second of all, it's a little bit of a brushback pitch of saying, well, if you do this, you might be taking a little bit of a risk. Be careful with me.
NORRIS: So Ruth says it's a bit dangerous for Hillary Clinton. Lisa, do you agree - a bit dangerous for her? Is it also a bit dangerous for the candidates who were throwing those punches?
Ms. SCHIFFREN: You know what? I think Ruth is entirely right. I agree 100 percent. It's very dangerous for Hillary if - there's no way a woman can be elected in this country unless she is able to convince the majority of voters that she is tough enough and competent and experienced enough. She has to show kind of the hard virtues. We presume, when a woman runs, that she has the softer virtues, more nurturing and interest in social policy and even greater honesty. The electorate perceives that in all women candidates at the start.
NORRIS: In this stage…
Ms. SCHIFFREN: She has to demonstrate that she's tough. And this kind of little girl whining hurt act is actually - it's her first, I think, very big stumble. Today, I was shocked to read that Bill Clinton came out and essentially accused the other Democrats of, and I quote, "Swift Boating Hillary," a reference to what Republicans did to John Kerry four years ago. That was - I think that was a false note from Bill on this.
NORRIS: Well, the candidates were very quick to come out and make statements on that. I think Barack Obama and Chris Dodd have already, you know, basically said shame on you for doing that.
Ms. MARCUS: And I'll see your Swift Boating and raise you one - Eleanor Smeal, who's a feminist and Hillary Clinton supporter, compared the attacks on her to Anita Hill. And I've been really waiting to say this for a long time. I was at the Anita Hill hearings, and Hillary Clinton is no Anita Hill. And the Democratic candidates are no Senate Judiciary Committee. And we've got to move on from here.
NORRIS: Now, you know, I want to move on and actually look at what's going on in Iowa. Hillary Clinton is well ahead in the national polls - very large margin, I think more than 20 points. But in Iowa, it's quite a different story. It's still very much a three-way race there.
Lisa, does Hillary Clinton have to win in Iowa, not place second or third, but actually win and win by a large margin to hold on to her front-runner status?
Ms. SCHIFFREN: You know, in this round, I think in both parties, the results on the ground and Iowa and New Hampshire right this minute look very different than the national polls. I think that Hillary does not have to win by a large margin, but she really does have to win. If she doesn't win, her inevitability blows up.
You know, and that's been a very serious factor, I think, in her favor, that's why she's able now to campaign kind of down the center as if she's got the nomination and start trying to appeal to mainstream voters. So she does have to win, I think. I think if she comes in second, that for her - because her national lead is so much greater in the polls - that will look like a very big discrepancy and it will cause people to wonder what's up.
Ms. MARCUS: I think she has a little bit more leeway to come in second in Iowa. And I think, actually, it's much more break or break for Senator Obama and Senator Edwards in the sense that if they don't show that they can do it there, they're not going to be able - it's not clear if they win there that they'll still be able to take it all the way. But if they don't make it there, they're going to make it anywhere.
NORRIS: So the tank is running pretty low if they come in…
Ms. MARCUS: Pretty low.
NORRIS: …at least third. Second, they might have a shot.
Ms. MARCUS: A shot to keep going. But I think I take Lisa's point about the inevitability narrative and we saw a kind of little bump in the inevitability narrative this week. But I think of all the candidates who have some leeway to not win there, Hillary Clinton has the most sort of gas in the tank.
NORRIS: Now, for both you, I want to turn now to the Republican field and -where the large and the influential bloc of Christian conservative voters are still shopping around for a candidate that they can rally behind.
This week, Paul Weyrich endorsed Mitt Romney - GOP candidate Mitt Romney. Lisa, how significant is this for a candidate whose Mormon faith makes him a bit suspicious in the eyes of some of the traditional or fundamentalist Christians?
Ms. SCHIFFREN: Well, I'm going to - I don't know, but leave the home plate here and to say that I don't think that endorsement is worth very much at all.
Paul Weyrich is a well-respected conservative activist but unlike, say, Dr. Jim Dobson, he's not a preacher. He doesn't have a following of hundreds of thousands of people who listen to him and will take their lead from him. It's a nice thing. I don't think it's worth all that much. I think most endorsements are not ultimately worth all that much.
Ms. MARCUS: And I think it's a notch in the belt. It's another notch in the belt. Romney has gotten some other significant endorsements recently. But I think that endorsements in general are almost a little overplayed. And particularly among the evangelicals, it's not the sort of cohesive follow-one-or-two-leaders community that it once was. It's big and it's diverse, and I'm not sure that there's anybody whose imprimatur could really absolutely both signify that Romney was good to go, and dispel some of the doubts that, obviously, from polls people have about a Mormon candidate.
NORRIS: Now, some of the key conservatives are already looking beyond the pack and talking about the possibility of a third-party candidate. But I want to ask you about one candidate in particular, Mike Huckabee, because he hasn't really seemed to punch through nationally. But if you talk to people in Iowa, it appears that there, he really is connecting with voters and gaining some traction.
Ms. SCHIFFREN: You know, he's a master of retail politics. When you watch him in person, he's - he was a preacher. He speaks beautifully. He's kind of energetic and compelling. He's not breaking through because he was the governor of Arkansas, because he's not a particularly serious economic conservative, and because there's, you know, not a chance that he will get the nomination.
NORRIS: I have to stop you there because time is short and I'm going to get Ruth a quick chance to respond to that. Not a chance?
Ms. MARCUS: Not a very good chance. And I think he does have some natural ceilings, both concern among economic conservatives; and if you were to start to break through, concerns about his national security bona fides. But I do think he is the most interesting person to be watching in Iowa.
NORRIS: Ruth Marcus is a columnist and a member of the editorial board at the Washington Post. Lisa Schiffren is a contributor to National Review. Thanks so much to both of you.
Ms. MARCUS: Thank you.
Ms. SCHIFFREN: Thank you.
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