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GOP Hopefuls Ready For Debate In Iowa


Turning now to domestic politics. The Iowa caucuses are just about three weeks away now. Herman Cain is gone. Newt Gingrich is the new front-runner. And Mitt Romney is slipping somewhat in the polls. Meanwhile, the attacks among the GOP contenders are getting sharper. And against that backdrop, there's another debate tonight. This one at Drake University in Des Moines.

NPR's Don Gonyea will be there, and he joins me now from Iowa. And, Don, first of all, a diminished cast of characters tonight. We're going to have a smaller group on the stage as the field thins with Herman Cain's departure last weekend, right?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There's going to be room to roam on the stage. We'll have six of them on the stage. Yes, no Herman Cain. The first non-999 debate, I guess. But also not invited was former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. His poll numbers are below 5 percent, so he didn't clear the threshold and is not included. For everyone involved, what it means is more airtime. That gives some hope and maybe some opportunity to lower-tier candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. But the biggest difference tonight will be that for the first time that presence that is Newt Gingrich will be at the lectern right in the middle of the stage. The spot occupied by the first on top of the polls.

RAZ: And a lot of eyes, of course, will be on Gingrich. Give us a preview of what Gingrich's game plan is here tonight.

GONYEA: Well, his big goal is to continue being, you know, the always confident and always in control Newt Gingrich and to not give anyone who's come over to his side in the past month, any of those former Herman Cain voters or from wherever they come, undecided voters, to not give them any reason to question that decision.

But this debate is going to be different form. He's never been the target. And look for the others to go after him on the issues. They'll question his conservative credentials, there's also his own past, personal and professional. He has a reputation, as you know, for being very undisciplined.

The interesting thing, though, is he's used the past debates to say the Republican field, they shouldn't be arguing amongst themselves. That's what the media want, he says. And he has reserved his attacks for the president. He opened a new headquarters in suburban Des Moines this afternoon, and he told reporters there and supporters that he won't run a campaign that attacks the other GOP candidates. His sole opponent is Barack Obama. So he's taking that front-runner post.

RAZ: Interesting, because he has come under attack from Mitt Romney. And we have to assume that the stakes are very high for him tonight.

GONYEA: Absolutely, because for most of this campaign, Mitt Romney has been the guy who's been ignoring the other candidates and focusing on President Obama. But just in the past week, he sent surrogates out, you know, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, former Missouri Senator James Talent. They did a conference call. They were very, very, very critical and hard-hitting on Gingrich. Romney has still resisted doing that much himself, so it'll be very interesting to see what mode he was in when he's on the stage right next to Gingrich tonight. The attack mode has never been Romney's strong suit, so it's - it gets tricky for him.

RAZ: Don, one of the things you hear a lot now is how the voters in Iowa tend to get really engaged the closer you get to Election Day. We are getting closer to that point. What can you tell us, you know, beyond the rankings of the candidates and polls and so on about the kind of enthusiasm you are seeing in Iowa?

GONYEA: You can feel that it's getting close, and you can feel that people are starting to pay more attention. I mean, they're pretty active here. They get involved in the Ames straw poll in the summertime, there's certainly the Iowa State Fair with all of its speeches. But things are gearing up, and their mailboxes are filling up with candidate flyers and everything else now. But here's the key. In the latest Des Moines Register poll, 60 percent of likely GOP caucus goers say they still might change their minds. So don't let anybody today predict what will happen here in three and a half weeks when the caucuses actually take place.

RAZ: Exciting times. That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Des Moines, Iowa. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.