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Political Events Pull Eyes To Iowa


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon. With the Iowa caucuses now 45 days away, today is a big day in the state for Republicans and Democrats as well. Today's six GOP candidates will attend a forum hosted by a leading conservative Christian group, then tonight Democrats will hold their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. It was at that event four years ago that then candidate Barack Obama's campaign really took off in the state, helping him to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

Joining us from Des Moines to talk about all this is NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, good morning.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, Don, tell us about the GOP event. I understand it looks like a debate but it's not called a debate.

GONYEA: It's a forum. It may be semantics here, but they'll be seated at a round table. It'll be two hours long. The Family Leader, the sponsor, is a group that's been trying to keep issues like same-sex marriage and abortion front and center, will have Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney won't be there. Probably doesn't do himself any favors, but he didn't think he was going to get an endorsement from this group anyway.

WERTHEIMER: The polls still show this to be a volatile race. One this week puts Herman Cain in first, despite all his troubles. Mitt Romney is quite a ways back in third. What do you think is happening?

GONYEA: It is still a bit of a jumble. It looks a lot like polls nationally and in other states. Herman Cain, again, sits on top here, but the polling in this particular case was done over the past two weeks, so it probably doesn't fully reflect the troubles he has had. But fourth place here is can't decide, ahead of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.

WERTHEIMER: As for the campaigning itself in Iowa, you've covered caucuses over the years. Does this year feel any different?

GONYEA: It does feel like something has changed this year as there's been so much of the focus on those national debates. Less retail campaigning. There have been fewer town halls. Romney has had just a handful of stops here. Newt Gingrich has not been here much. Herman Cain, even less. It's interesting though, the guy who's sitting at the bottom of the polls, Rick Santorum, has run probably the most traditional Iowa campaign. He's hit all 99 counties. I talked to him last night.

How's this for bit of chutzpah. He was holding a town hall at a Godfather's Pizza in Knoxville, Iowa, and he's waiting for his turn.

RICK SANTORUM: We've still got six-and-a-half weeks. That's an eternity in politics. My goodness, six-and-a-half weeks ago no one was talking about Newt Gingrich. Six-and-a-half weeks before that, no one was talking about Herman Cain. Six-and-a-half weeks before that, Rick Perry wasn't even running. So, I mean, just remember the dynamism. Those of you who follow politics, I mean, six weeks is a lifetime in politics. I'd rather have my moment in late December than in late July.

GONYEA: So Rick Santorum, still waiting for that moment.

WERTHEIMER: All of the action this year, of course, is on the Republican side since the Democrats already have their candidate, the president. But tonight, as we mentioned, Democrats have their big annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Let's listen to a moment from that event four years ago.


WERTHEIMER: Don, the president will not be there this year but they have someone they hope will light a fire.

GONYEA: The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, will be there. He's also the former chief of staff to the president. Look for a vigorous defense of the president's record, look for a scary outline of what's at stake, but Democrats don't have a caucus this year. That provided a lot of the excitement four years ago. They'll need to find something else this time.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's national political correspondent, Don Gonyea, speaking with us from Des Moines, Iowa. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.