The next sounds you hear will be Iowa Republicans rendering their judgment for 2012. The road to the magic number of 1,145 — delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination — begins today, Tuesday. The caucuses, all 1,774 of them, start at 7 pm Central time (8 Eastern), and results may start to trickle in within the hour.
Here's a look at the field, presented in order of their standing in the final Des Moines Register poll, which was released Saturday night:
Mitt Romney (leads poll with 24%): The nominal frontrunner in what has been a most bizarre and topsy-turvy "pre-season," Romney has the endorsements and the money, and he may ultimately have the voters. Most polls show him as the most electable of all the GOP contenders. Frankly, I can't see him not getting the nomination. But we're just hours away from the Iowa caucuses and he has yet to pull away from his Republican rivals. I don't know if it's about his past positions, which were far more liberal as he was seeking office in Massachusetts, or his Mormon religion, which remains a problem with some Iowa evangelicals. Maybe it's both. A loss in Iowa wouldn't necessarily cripple his chances — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John McCain all lost the caucuses and went on to win the nomination. And that would be especially true if he lost to either Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, whom no one sees as a likely nominee. Still, despite early public reluctance to commit here, it is clear that Romney wants this. And as President Obama's numbers start to creep up, the deciding factor in Romney's favor may be the polls that show him as the only Republican who has a shot at beating him. Marker: Bob Dole's 26% in 1996 is the weakest showing for an Iowa winner.
Ron Paul (second place with 22%): Widely dismissed in 2008 (and ever since, for that matter) for his trail of out-of-mainstream views, Paul nonetheless has a committed libertarian/isolationist following that showed none of the fickleness that the other candidates experienced. Nor can he be accused of shifting his positions; his opposition to big government, undeclared wars, the Fed's monetary policy and foreign aid have been a major part of him since he first came to Congress in 1976. Unlike the rest of the field, he opposes a preemptive strike on Iran, places much of the blame for 9/11 on U.S. foreign policy, and was against the raid that took out Osama bin Laden. He says following the Constitution is absolute, and blames both parties for the decline of America. But he does it in a calm and almost sad manner, not with anger or fury, and that style has won over voters as well. He has taken a hit in recent days about incendiary anti-black, anti-Zionist, anti-immigrant and anti-gay language that appeared in political newsletters under Paul's name in the early 1990s, in between Paul's two congressional stints. This stuff first came out during Paul's previous presidential run four years ago. But because he was not considered a factor — and indeed he wasn't, finishing fifth — few paid attention to it. Paul may not have written the words, and he says he didn't. But he refuses to renounce the support of those with such views. And to blame the inclusion of the passages on poor oversight, as he has, is, well, disturbing. Paul has the money to stay in the race for a long time, which he did in 2008, well after it was clear he was not going to be the nominee. But the question is whether his appeal, on the rise for weeks, may have hit a wall in the wake of these revelations. And here's another question: Though he says he's not thinking of it, many suspect he might seek the Libertarian Party's nod. He did that once before, in 1988, and he got 0.5% of the total vote. But then he was a former congressman with no national following or recognition. This year, with a proven record of appealing to disaffected Democrats and Republicans, could be different. Numbers: If elected president, Paul, at 77, would be the oldest in history.
Rick Santorum (third with 15%): If any candidate goes into Tuesday's caucuses with momentum, according to the Des Moines Register poll, it's Santorum. Until now, he had been the only candidate not to experience a day in the sun as a "frontrunner." In fact, few were even talking about him. But his dogged determination in organizing in all 99 counties seems to have paid off, at least in the Register and CNN polls. If the evangelical vote coalesces around him — he did get the backing of Bob Vander Plaats, a big deal with pro-family groups (though Rep. Steve King will remain neutral) — Santorum could be a factor. And even if it is only third place, that's still much better than anyone could have imagined just a short time ago. But a strong finish on Tuesday needs to be followed by strong finishes elsewhere, in states where he has not put in the time and effort he has in Iowa, and he is hampered by a lack of organization and money.
Newt Gingrich (fourth with 12%): Nobody illustrates the ups and downs of this pre-primary season quite like Gingrich. He was all but left for dead after his staff quit en masse, in June, reflecting a disillusionment with his campaign strategy. But a series of impressive debate performances, an insistence of not attacking his fellow Republicans, coupled with the collapse of the latest darling, Herman Cain, gave Gingrich new life and a huge boost in the polls. "I'm going to be the nominee," he said, and many people agreed. But he's also saddled with tons of baggage that illustrates tremendous weaknesses as well (3 marriages, money from Freddie Mac, a love fest with Nancy Pelosi, attacks on Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, attacks on "Romneycare" though he praised it in 2006, an oversized ego and a propensity to make incendiary and exaggerated comments, etc.). Perhaps no one in Iowa has been the subject of as many brutal attack ads as Gingrich, most coming from the "super PACs" unofficially aligned with Romney and Perry. And the absence of a strong bank account and campaign organization — witness his failure to get on the ballot in Virginia — underlines his inability to respond. And speaking of his failure in Virginia, Gingrich's campaign chair had this to say: "Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941: We have experienced an unexpected setback, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action." Pearl Harbor? Only Newt Gingrich.
Rick Perry (fifth with 11%): Just as Michele Bachmann pushed her fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty to the sidelines in the early debates, Perry's candidacy seemed to end Bachmann's reach for the stars from Day One. But if the debates elevated Gingrich, they all but ruined Perry, who fumbled and stumbled his way through many of them and has never recovered; "oops" may be the debate word that best illustrates 2011. Initially under assault by his rivals for what appeared to be a humane policy towards illegal immigrants, his record then began to be picked apart, especially over business deals back home that led Bachmann (as well as Sarah Palin) to refer to his "crony capitalism." As his numbers have shrunk his appeals to the religious right have intensified; his campaign ads note that "I am a Christian," and he now says he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.
Michele Bachmann (sixth with 7%): The lone woman in the race, her high-water mark was winning the straw poll in Ames back in August. That same day, Perry got in the race and took away much of her thunder. She has yet to regain her standing. But to blame her collapse on Rick Perry simplifies what she was up against. She had a series of gaffes and misstatements, offering up facts that sometimes were not, everything from misplacing Lexington and Concord to taking someone's word that the HPV vaccination caused "retardation" to confusing one John Wayne from the other. The final indignity came last week, as her Iowa campaign chair quit and joined the Paul effort. Unless lightning strikes, she seems an all-but-certain casualty of the caucuses. Numbers: The only previous straw poll victor who finished way back in the caucus pack was Phil Gramm; the Texas senator tied Bob Dole at Ames but finished fifth with caucus participants in 1996.
History. Here's a look at the results of contested GOP caucuses since 1980 (note: Iowa Republicans did hold a first-in-the-nation caucus in 1976, when President Gerald Ford was challenged by Ronald Reagan, but no official straw vote was taken.)
Iowa winner — George H.W. Bush (32%)
Rest of field — Ronald Reagan (30%), Howard Baker (15%), John Connally (9%), Phil Crane (7%), John Anderson (4%), Bob Dole (2%)
1979 straw poll winner — Bush
Nominee — Reagan
Iowa winner — Bob Dole (37%)
Rest of field — Pat Robertson (25%), George H.W. Bush (19%), Jack Kemp (11%), Pete du Pont (7%)
1987 straw poll winner — Robertson
Nominee — Bush
Iowa winner — Bob Dole (26%)
Rest of field — Pat Buchanan (23%), Lamar Alexander (18%), Steve Forbes (10%), Phil Gramm (9%), Alan Keyes (7%), Dick Lugar (4%), Morry Taylor (1%)
1995 straw poll winner — Dole and Gramm (tied)
Nominee — Dole
Iowa winner — George W. Bush (41%)
Rest of field — Steve Forbes (30%), Alan Keyes (14%), Gary Bauer (9%), John McCain (5%)*, Orrin Hatch (1%)
1999 straw poll winner — Bush
Nominee — Bush
Iowa winner — Mike Huckabee (34%)
Rest of field — Mitt Romney (25%), Fred Thompson (13%), John McCain (13%)*, Ron Paul (10%), Rudy Giuliani (4%)*, Duncan Hunter (1%)
2007 straw poll winner — Romney
Nominee — McCain
And speaking of history, here's a note from Steve Wylder of Elkhart, Ind.:
I thought I heard you say that there were no Iowa presidential caucuses before 1972. There were — it's just that they weren't first-in-the-nation. Before 1972, they were held in March or April, and thus largely ignored by the national media. But the McGovern Commission was set up after the 1968 Democratic convention, which nominated Hubert Humphrey even though he never entered a primary. (It wasn't really Hubert's fault, as LBJ pulled out of the presidential race after most deadlines for entering primaries had come and gone.) Anyway, the McGovern Commission imposed fairly complicated rules for delegate selection, especially for the inclusion of women, youth, and minorities. Iowa Democrats decided to hold the caucuses early that year in order to work out any bugs and/or challenges.
That, at least, was the official reason. I suspect the unstated reason was the expectation that Sen. Harold E. Hughes (D) would be a presidential candidate in '72. Hughes bowed out before the caucuses, endorsing Sen. Edmund Muskie, who "won," tying with "Uncommitted" at 36 per cent. I remember going to a caucus in January, which was basically designed to organize the Hughes presidential campaign. As a result, I got stuck with being precinct chairman for Penn Township in Johnson County, for which I, as a 19-year-old, was unprepared.
The Iowa Caucus process. It won't touch your heart like "War Horse" or sadden you like "The Descendants," but I'm telling you, this video we did four years ago in Iowa, about the history of the caucuses and how they differ from a primary, is must-see. Well, kinda. Click here to watch. (And then go to the mugshot halfway down the page on the left.)
Candidates 2012. Nebraska's Ben Nelson becomes the 6th Democratic senator to opt out of re-election bid next year, joining Daniel Akaka of Haw., Jeff Bingaman of N.M., Kent Conrad of N.D., Jim Webb of Va. and Herb Kohl of Wis. A Democratic-leaning independent, Joe Lieberman of Conn., and two Republicans, Jon Kyl of Ariz. and Kay Bailey Hutchison, are also retiring. … Ricardo Sanchez, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq and the Democrats' favorite for the open Texas Senate seat, withdraws from the race. … The all-but-ignored Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who made it to one or two presidential debates, leaves the GOP to seek the Libertarian Party nomination. Last Republican to drop out of the prez race to run outside the two-party system: John Anderson, 1980 … Another Republican, developer Donald Trump, also quit the party in preparation for what may or may not be (do we really care) an independent bid for president. … Rep. Steve Austria, whose 7th District in Ohio was sliced up in redistricting and was placed in the same CD as fellow Republican Mike Turner, announces he will retire and not seek a third term. … Scott Mackay of Rhode Island Public Radio tells us that Joseph P. Kennedy III, the 31 year old son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy II (and grandson of RFK), is likely to jump into the race to succeed the retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D) in Mass.
Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here's some mail from my in-box:
Q: For all the focus on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, how many people actually sign up for the Iowa thing and are they restricted to registered Republicans? And how many people show up for New Hampshire and is it an open primary? — Penney Kolb, Morgantown, W.Va.
A: Turnout in caucuses, which requires major commitment, are always dwarfed by turnout in primaries, where all you need to do is show up, vote, and skedaddle. About 120,000 Republicans caucused in Iowa in 2008; in New Hampshire, which has a much smaller population, 235,000 Republicans voted. (The GOP, reeling then under the unpopularity of President Bush, the state of the economy and the war in Iraq, is expected to see higher turnouts this year.)
You must be a registered Republican to attend a Republican caucus in Iowa, but you can register at the caucus site. Thus, some who are predicting a Ron Paul victory expect Democrats and independents to show up and declare their affinity for the GOP so they can vote for Paul. In New Hampshire, independents can vote in either primary; they were instrumental in John McCain's 2000 and 2008 victories. But Democrats may not vote in GOP primaries and vice versa.
Q: If I were a liberal in Iowa and I wanted to caucus for the GOP candidate most likely to win the nomination but lose to Obama, who would that be? — Shawn OHare, Clear Lake, Iowa
A: While the polls have fluctuated for much of the past few months — even Herman Cain was beating Obama in some polls — it seems that the president has regained some of his popularity. At this point, at least, Romney is the only one who polls show is in striking distance of Obama.
Q: Who was the last Republican candidate who ran and won in a contested caucus in Iowa who became the party's nominee for president? — George Topor, Corte Madera, Calif.
A: George W. Bush, in 2000, and he won the Iowa triple crown that cycle. He won the straw poll, the Iowa caucuses and the nomination. And he went on to win the White House.
Q: Why are most of the candidates using their ad money to attack Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul instead of Mitt Romney? Is there some sort of agreement not to beat up Romney too much because he's the likely general election candidate? — Sally Sadoff, San Diego, Calif.
A: The battle in the GOP from the outset seemed to be which candidate would become the alternative to Romney, widely thought of as the establishment choice. Anyone who watched the debates saw no shortage of attacks on Romney and his so-called flip-flops. But the assumption is that as the race goes on it will be Romney vs. the anti-Romney, and thus the other candidates are aggressively seeking the mantle of the latter. Note that with the apparent rise of Rick Santorum has come attacks on him from others in the race, notably Rick Perry, who has this clever "Jeopardy" style ad up:
Q: If Newt Gingrich becomes president, would he be the first Ph.D to achieve that office? — Rick Thurmond, Cobb, Calif.
A: The second. The first was Woodrow Wilson, who was awarded his Ph.D. doctorate in 1886, following the publication of his book, Congressional Government.
2011 Farewells. Lots of responses to last week's column, a voluminous listing of those in the political world who died in 2011. Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer, sent in this:
It's good you do this compilation at the end of every year on those we've lost. This was poignant year for me; David Broder was my mentor and close friend and colleague at the Post. Dick Wirthlin's data and insights guide me in stories and books. Mark Hatfield and Chuck Percy, both of whom I covered, were straight-shooters, with their constituents and the press. I kept in touch with Hatfield and had the honor of doing the Hatfield Lecture one year for the Oregon Historical Society. There were many others on your to whom I was indebted, including George Gallup Sr. and [former California congressman] Steve Horn. It's good to take time to remember them all.
Al Eisele, the editor-at-large for The Hill who was the press secretary for former Vice President Walter Mondale:
Didn't realize we'd lost so many of them in the past year. I attended memorials services for three — Eleanor Mondale, Hal Bruno and Milt Gwirtzman, and covered at least half of them at one time or another. Please keep me off the list for at least 10 more years.
Craig Shirley, the conservative consultant and author of the new book, "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World," had this:
The odd and sad fact is I knew so many of the people who have died in the last several years. It is weird to say to my wife, "I just had dinner with that person." Or, "I just saw so and so." The other day my son Matt said I was middle aged to which I replied, "Yeah? How many 110 year old men do you know?" But life goes on, eh?
Antony Pate of Washington, DC., added this: "Many of the people you mention were well-known, and well-recognized, upon their deaths; but your references to Bill Monroe, John Armstrong, Mike Posner, and Leonard Weinglass, among others, were well-deserved and much-appreciated."
I said my list hardly claims to be complete, and I invited readers to send in the names of those I missed. John Hiestand of Hillsboro, Ohio, had one: former Rep. James Quigley (D-Pa.), who was elected in 1954, defeated in 1956, elected again in 1958, and defeated again in 1960; he died on Dec. 15 at the age of 93.
And James McKinstra of Aurora, Minn., and a "near life-long Illinoisan" until last year, lists two Illinoisans who died: former First Lady Lura Lynn Ryan, wife of ex-Gov. George Ryan, and former Chicago First Lady Maggie Daley, wife of ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show came to you from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines, with special guests Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co. and the pollster for the Des Moines Register; Joyce Russell, reporter for Iowa Public Radio; and Steve Scheffler, Republican National Committeeman for Iowa and president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition. You can listen to the entire segment right here:
This week the show will be coming from New Hampshire.
And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every week. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter the current contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt! DON'T FORGET TO CHECK BACK HERE ON WEDNESDAY FOR THE NEW PUZZLE.
Note: Starting next week, ScuttleButton will appear each Monday, the same day as the Political Junkie column. Same rules apply.
Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. Last week's segment had Ron in Washington and me in Des Moines. You can listen to the latest episode here:
And speaking of Des Moines … a big thanks to the staff at Iowa Public Radio, who was gracious and wonderful in having the TOTN Junkie segment come out of their studios. At a get together with supporters of IPR afterwards, I had the pleasure of meeting many people who generously give their time and money to making public radio possible. At the reception were two former Republican lt. govs. of Iowa, Joy Corning — who served two terms under Terry Branstad — and Arthur Neu, who was first elected in the 1970s. Both were delightful, and they tolerated my desire to go down memory lane with them.
And as long as we're on the subject of Arthur Neu, how can we avoid using his campaign button in this mini-ScuttleButton messsage? (see buttons at left)
ON THE CALENDAR:
Jan. 3 — IOWA CAUCUSES.
Jan. 4 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from New Hampshire.
Jan. 7 — GOP debate, N.H. (ABC, 9 pm ET).
Jan. 8 — GOP debate, Concord, N.H. (NBC's Meet the Press, 9 am ET).
Jan. 10 — NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY.
Jan. 16 — GOP debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Fox, 9 pm ET).
Jan. 19 — GOP debate, Charleston, S.C. (CNN).
Jan. 21 — SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY.
Jan. 23 — GOP debate, Tampa, Fla. (NBC).
Jan. 24 — President Obama's State of the Union address to Congress.
Jan. 25 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Orlando, Fla.
Jan. 26 — GOP debate, Jacksonville, Fla. (CNN).
Jan. 31 — FLORIDA PRIMARY.
Jan. 31 — Special congressional election in Oregon's 1st CD to succeed former Rep. David Wu (D), who resigned amid a sex scandal. Candidates: Suzanne Bonamici (D) and Rob Cornilles (R).
Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********
This day in campaign history: Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois wins the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, the first step en route to becoming the first African-American elected to the White House. In the caucuses he is followed by former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). Two other Democrats, Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, finish in single digits and drop out of the race. On the Republican side, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with strong evangelical Christian support, beats out another ex-gov., Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) finishes third, followed by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who didn't compete in Iowa but will go on to win the GOP nomination (Jan. 3, 2008).
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