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GOP Presidential Hopefuls To Debate In Iowa


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Lynn Neary.

The Republican candidates gather for yet another debate tonight. This one is in Sioux City, Iowa. It's the last debate before the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. And it comes as Mitt Romney and other candidates try to stop the surge of Newt Gingrich. Romney and his allies have been launching a furious assault on the former House speaker.

For more on the state of the race, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks for joining us, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.

NEARY: So where does the race stand right now, Mara?

LIASSON: Well, the race stands: Gingrich is still in the lead in Iowa, Ron Paul is a close second. Paul is really Romney's best friend in Iowa. He's the one person who could stop Gingrich's momentum. He has a good organization - that matters a lot in a tight race.

But the recent Gallup poll showed that Gingrich also has an advantage. He might not have organization, but he does have the support of people who are most likely to come out and show up at the caucuses. And those are older voters and people who identify as core Republicans.

We have seen some signs of slippage in Gingrich's polling. The question is, is that the natural falloff after a big surge or is it something more dramatic, a slump like you saw with Cain and Perry. We don't know yet.

One thing that has remained constant, the signal feature of this race is the conservative resistance to Romney. It's defined the race to date and that's why you've seen the one after another alternative-to-Romney rise, and then most of them have fallen. Now we're waiting to see if Newt will wilt under the barrage from Romney.

NEARY: And of course, as you said, Romney is openly attacking Gingrich. What's his line of attack? Is it more ideological or personal, what?

LIASSON: Well, it's about character and leadership. Mitt Romney has been on television everywhere. This is a huge change. He never used to give any interviews. He says that Gingrich is an unreliable conservative. He's called him zany. He's trying to remind conservatives of all the times that Gingrich has said something petulant, but in the form of undermining either a conservative hero, when Gingrich criticized Paul Ryan's medical plan. Or the belief that venture capitalists should be able to take over companies and lay people off, when Gingrich attacked Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. The battle cry here from the Romney campaign is: With Friends Like Newt, Who Needs The Left?

NEARY: So, how is Gingrich reacting to this attack?

LIASSON: Well, so far, Gingrich has not been rising to the bait. He's been exhibiting a very un-Newt-like discipline lately. He's smart. He knows he doesn't want to get into a fistfight with Romney and have another candidate, a third candidate, benefit the way that often happens in Iowa. So, he hasn't been taking the bait. He says he's running his own campaign. He's going to stay positive. But as is the question always with Newt Gingrich: How long can that last?

NEARY: And, of course, we're hearing suggestions that the GOP primary could become a long, protracted fight. Is that really possible?

LIASSON: It is possible. And Romney himself has been talking about that. He says he's prepared for a long war. Unless he's totally wiped out in the early states, he says he is prepared. He has the organization and the money to compete all over the country. That's an advantage he retains. That's a big advantage, because Gingrich hasn't really begun to build a campaign outside of the early states.

NEARY: And of course the debates have played such a crucial role in this race. So, what do the candidates need to do in this last debate before the Iowa caucuses?

LIASSON: Well, Romney needs to press his case against Newt effectively. He's had a couple of wobbly debate performances that was a big departure from those smooth, polished presidential performances he gave in the early debates. Gingrich needs to keep his cool. For the other candidates, they need to try to rattle Gingrich. He's the one standing in their way in the Iowa.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: That was NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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