Countdown to Iowa's Caucuses, Part One With less than three weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses, Republican Mike Huckabee seems to be rising, Democrat Barack Obama is accelerating, and the Hillary Clinton camp is in a panic. Political commentators E.J. Dionne and David Brooks talk about the week in presidential politics.
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Countdown to Iowa's Caucuses, Part One

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Countdown to Iowa's Caucuses, Part One

Countdown to Iowa's Caucuses, Part One

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And with me now, our two regular political observers. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. Welcome back, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you again, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: David, starting with you. Mike Huckabee - you heard him there, is he for real? Is he a serious contender for the nomination right now beyond Iowa?

Mr. BROOKS: He is for real. And as he said, his support is much broader than the evangelical base in part because he's the most normal and natural person for - running for office, which is not saying much, but he is a normal, nice and funny guy.

SIEGEL: Running in the field this year.

Mr. BROOKS: Right, there are mostly emotional freaks aside from him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: But the other interesting thing that's happening is he's being assaulted from two sides. He's being assaulted from the Democrats for being sort of a religious nut. And there's some basis to that, though I think it's mostly false. I think he's a new sort of evangelical, more a Rick Warren sight - sort than a Part Robertson sight, much more compassion and much more open, much less confrontational. But more interestingly, he's being assaulted by the Republican establishment for being a moderate, for being a centrist, which goes…

SIEGEL: On immigration, for example.

Mr. BROOKS: Not only on immigration, but on spending, on taxes and a whole range of things having to do with his term as governor. And that really is the core of who he is. And I find him a much more attractive figure in part because he is a new sort of Republican. He is a much more moderate sort of Republican on policy grounds. And he's the only breath of fresh air so far in the race on the Republican side.

SIEGEL: E.J., agree?

Mr. DIONNE: I do agree. I mean, if you, part of the problem for the rest of the field is that they left Huckabee with this enormous opening, partly for the character issues that David so colorfully described and partly because if you look at this Republican race, in a way, it's about nothing. That is to say, it's about everything. McCain's about the war. Romney is economic conservative and a social conservative that he wasn't back in the 1990s. Giuliani was about 9/11, now he's about being mayor in New York City. And Thompson is about '80s tax cuts.

So there is this huge opening and in walks this warm conservative who plays in a rock band, a Christian preacher who cares about abortion and the poor, and who has all these interesting down-home one-liners. And I think the Republicans were just hungry for some alternative. I think also, except for being a governor or a former governor, he's probably the one who distances the party most from the Bush era. He really has no background on foreign policy, which also means he has no clear commitments that tie him to anybody's foreign policy.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Although as he told me just a few minutes ago, when it comes to, say, dealing with subprime mortgages, he would do just what the Bush administration is doing. He identifies with them in those points. But you raised another question. A year ago, it seemed this would be an election about Iraq, if not Iraq, and Iran after that. Is it still going to be that, David? Or is turning into an election that's about the economy and recession and mortgage interest rates?

Mr. BROOKS: The latter, in part because the things that are happening in the world - Iran seems a less imminent threat, the situation in Iraq has stabilized, the Middle East some sort of peace process is going. And so what's happened is the climate of fear has sort of - has not evaporated, but lessened. People feel the world is less building to some sort of further crisis. And so what they're doing, the two candidates who are surging now - Huckabee and Barack Obama - have very little foreign policy experience. And they're surging because people do want to turn the page. They want to turn to a postwar sort of election, a Clement Attlee sort of election. And it's helped Obama and Huckabee, it's hurt Giuliani and Clinton.

SIEGEL: Clement Attlee, who brought the British Labour Party to power after the Second World War. We'll talk about the Democrats in a moment. But among the other Republicans, anything noteworthy here that you're seeing happen here with Romney or Giuliani or McCain apart from him? Or is Huckabee the only game in town, E.J., (unintelligible)?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, no. I think that in terms of appealing personalities, McCain is the other one. And I don't think he's lost all of his appeal as a personality. I really believe that Romney and Giuliani have done each other a lot of damage in these debates. They have attacked each other harshly. In the process, they not only hurt the other guy, I think they've also hurt themselves. And the other reason for this Huckabee opening, this is space that Fred Thompson…

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. DIONNE: …was supposed to occupy or at least some of that space.

SIEGEL: Huckabee got the part that Thompson tried out for here…

Mr. DIONNE: Right, and so…

SIEGEL: …to use a theatrical metaphor for the moment.

Mr. DIONNE: Precisely right. And he, you know, Thompson just doesn't seem to be going anywhere. And so I think, I still think there is an opening for McCain up in New Hampshire if Huckabee wins Iowa. But then it's hard to see how McCain goes forward from there.

SIEGEL: Well, how much is it, David, that it's just hard to carry Republican baggage this year? And it's tough to make a credible campaign when you have a very unpopular Republican president in office?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it shouldn't be that hard to win the nomination.

SIEGEL: Among Republicans, it could work.

Mr. DIONNE: Somebody's got to win.

Mr. BROOKS: Somebody's got to win. And I agree. I mean, one thing that's worth emphasizing is if this year is like past years, 20 percent of the electorate will decide in the last three days, another 20 percent in the last week. So this thing still has a long way to play. But among the Republicans, what surprised me is that nobody has really run as the new kind of Republican. And Huckabee is even a little ambivalent about that. I sort of miss Newt Gingrich in part because Newt Gingrich would actually introduce some policies into the race, which are basically absent except for who can build the biggest wall next to Mexico.

SIEGEL: Well, we're going to leave the discussion of the Republican primary race there. And we'll be back with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks in just a minute to talk about the Democrats and maybe about something more worthy like baseball, the two of you here. That'll be when we continue with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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