ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are now 10 weeks to go until people actually vote in this season of presidential caucuses and primaries. And what with the Christmas and New Year's breaks, it may feel like a short 10 weeks at that. Most Americans will have many other things on their minds. But looking ahead, some clear themes are emerging in this campaign. And here to talk about those themes and what to expect is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: The conventional wisdom has been that Donald Trump, on top on the Republican side, will eventually fade. The campaign will return to a more traditional form. How much confidence do you have that the Republican campaign is finally reverting to form?
LIASSON: Well, not too much confidence right now. There's no doubt the race is changing. Carson seems to have slumped, especially in Iowa, which was his stronghold with evangelical voters. But Trump has stayed on top. He's in the mid-20s, up to 30 percent range in the early state polls and nationally. Although, national polls mean very little in a primary race. But more and more Republicans can say they can imagine what, to them, just a month or two ago, was unimaginable, that Trump could conceivably be the nominee or at least that he'd win their states if the primaries were held today.
SIEGEL: Mara, we just heard about Clay Masters about Ted Cruz in Iowa. He's been making up some ground there. Do you think he has a real shot?
LIASSON: I do. I think he has a real shot at winning Iowa. As you just heard, he is now polling in Iowa second to Donald Trump's 25 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll. Cruz has 23. Carson has slipped down to 18 percent. Ted Cruz has a lot of money. He has a good, far-reaching field operation, and his strategy all along has been to position himself as the insider-outsider, the natural inheritor of the conservative, evangelical Tea Party vote if and when Trump and Carson fade. And that looks like it's happening with Carson.
And Cruz has probably picked up some of the Carson vote. His campaign believes he is now beginning to consolidate the conservative vote. He's been very careful to never criticize Donald Trump. He's politely separated himself from Trump only once, and that was on the idea of a database registry for Muslims. And Cruz's theory is that a conservative Republican can win the general election because conservatives - a conservative would be able to energize millions of conservative voters who have simply stayed home in the past because they weren't excited enough to vote for modern establishment candidates, supposedly more electable candidates like John McCain or Mitt Romney.
SIEGEL: One place where the candidates have been getting a lot of attention is obviously in the debates. There are two debates coming up before the end of the year, one for the Republicans and one for the Democrats. Have the debates really mattered, Mara?
LIASSON: The debates have definitely mattered. On the Republican side, tens of millions of people have watched them. I don't think they've been determinative, but they have changed the fortunes of some candidates. They've winnowed the field. Several candidates who couldn't get on the main debate stage have dropped out. Jeb Bush's poor debate performances have certainly hurt him. Marco Rubio's polished, very self-assured performances have impressed big Super PAC donors, and Rubio has recently netted some new billionaire supporters.
And Ted Cruz has also stood out. He has used the debates very, very skillfully. He's led the attack on the mainstream media, which is one of the big themes of the Republican race. But we should point out that two candidates, Trump and Carson, do not seem to have been affected very much or at all by their debate performances. Neither of them have been standouts in the debates.
SIEGEL: How about the Democrats? The debates there seem to have winnowed the field down. It's basically three candidates now - Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley. Would you say is the state of play on the Democratic side?
LIASSON: Well, Hillary Clinton continues to consolidate her lead in the polls. She certainly has a lead nationally, but national polls don't matter that much. But she does have a small lead in Iowa. Bernie Sanders is giving her a run for her money there. He's very close behind her or some - in some polls, ahead of her in New Hampshire. But New Hampshire and Iowa have very white Democrat electorates.
Where Hillary Clinton really is strong is in the South. She's built a very big, strong firewall, mostly with minority voters. And you know, today, the State Department is releasing another cache of Clinton's emails. And most Democrats I talked to say that only an indictment by the Justice Department could change the dynamic in the Democratic race. You know, the FBI is investigating whether Clinton knowingly sent any classified emails. But just to give you an example of how Democrats are not hedging their bets - in the count of elected officials endorsing candidates, right now, Clinton has a 45-1 lead over Bernie Sanders in terms of Democratic elected official support.
SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, 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.