ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
With one week to go before the first round of the presidential nominating process, the Republican race is unclear. A week from tomorrow, Iowa voters will go to local caucus meetings in all 99 counties to voice their preference for the party nominee. President Obama will be the choice for Democrats, but the Republican contest is far from settled. In a moment, we'll hear excerpts from the stump speeches of two of the leading Republican contenders, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. But first, joining us to discuss the Iowa caucuses and the importance of Iowa in the larger picture is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: So who's going to be the big winner in Iowa this year?
ELVING: It's possible there won't be one this year, Robert. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee won easily with the consolidated support of social conservatives. This year, no one has that. In fact, six different candidates have led in at least one poll done in Iowa in just the last two months. And right now, the leaders in the polls are two candidates who were not usually regarded as favorites of the religious conservatives. That would be Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. And those two are polling in the low to mid-20s in percentage terms. Many people think the more dedicated and active supporters are those of Ron Paul.
SIEGEL: But Ron Paul also has a problem. He's now come under fire as the other candidates who had been in front in the polls came under fire. In his case, it's stories that have re-emerged about his ties to white supremacists and opponents of Israel as well as other militant anti-government groups.
ELVING: Yes, being the sudden front-runner can be hazardous to your health this year. Ron Paul, in the 1990s after he ran for president as a libertarian, in 1988 put out some newsletters that he says were written by staff, and some that he says he didn't even read until years later. Some of those staff have ties to groups of libertarians of a sort, very extreme traditionalists oppose things such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and U.S. support of Israel. And Ron Paul, while he says he does not share any of those views and while he does not welcome this support, he has been somewhat reluctant to repudiate some of these people he's been associated with.
SIEGEL: And we should say that the newsletters that he says were written by staff, I think they were Ron Paul newsletters.
ELVING: They certainly featured his name and implied that they were being written by Ron Paul.
SIEGEL: Now, if Paul is suddenly on the defensive, at least somewhat, what is Mitt Romney doing to try to take advantage of that?
ELVING: He's going back to the state. He's been in New Hampshire the week before Christmas, and he's starting this week in New Hampshire. But he is starting his own bus tour along with all the other candidates who are running bus tours. And he also has put up an ad, which is meant obviously to re-emphasize his conservative credentials.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
MITT ROMNEY: I'm going to do something to government. I'm going to make it simpler and smaller and smarter, getting rid of programs, turning programs back to states and finally making government itself more efficient. I'm going to get rid of Obamacare. It is a moral imperative for America to stop spending more money than we take in.
SIEGEL: A moral imperative. Ron, it's possible, as you say, there could be no big winner in Iowa. Might there be a big loser in that case in Iowa?
ELVING: Always someone gets their dreams shattered in Iowa. That means to say that there were three tickets out. And if one goes to Paul and one goes to Romney, the third may go to Newt Gingrich. This time he's been very active and had a big spike in the polls earlier in the month. But he's also taken a terrible hit from all the other candidates' anti-Gingrich ads and particularly those put up by Ron Paul and by a group associated with Mitt Romney. So he has fallen back in the polls, and we'll have to see if he can recover by going after Mitt Romney this week.
SIEGEL: That leaves three other active candidates in Iowa: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.
ELVING: They're still sharing the shards, if you will, of the Huckabee vote among themselves from 2008. It's possible one of them will put all those pieces together and break out and eclipse the other two. But each of them has some real claim to that vote, and it's hard to tell which of the three might be the one who moves. Therefore, it's more likely all three of them continue to contend and none of them really breaks out to get in the top three.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.
ELVING: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.