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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN
GOP Nominees Campaign in Iowa; Political Analysts Examine GOP Presidential Race; Should Iowa Be First?; Virginia GOP Demanding Voters Sign Loyalty Pledge to Eventual GOP Nominee; Matthew Modine Discusses News Film
Aired January 2, 2012 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien and you are watching the very first edition of our special new show which is called STARTING POINT.
We're live here in Des Moines, Iowa, as a Waveland Cafe, launching our show, where every single day we'll look at big stories, give you some of the interesting details and go inside information only a worldwide news organization like CNN can bring to you every single day. We're going to talk to the leaders and newsmakers, but also real folks, and we'll challenge some of the conventional looks and issues people are discussing today.
So our STARTING POINT this morning is about changing minds in Iowa. Just 36 hours before the caucuses begin, and it is a statistical dead heat for first place between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and that means the race for third is on between Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann as well.
The good news for them, more than 40 percent of Iowa voters say their minds could be changed.
Got some breaking news to get to this morning. Police are speaking to a person of interest right now in the Los Angeles arson spree. Even as eight more fires were set overnight, surveillance videotape, I'll show you this, shows the person officers wanted to speak to. We'll bring you more on this story as more information is coming in to us as well.
We also have information on a manhunt under way in Washington for a man accused of murdering a Mount Rainier park ranger. Visitors are now being escorted out of the park by police. And in Virginia, voters are being told they have to pledge to support the Republican nominee if they want to vote in the Republican primaries. They say it's not exactly legally binding. Their vote is nobody else's business, so why bother? We'll ask that question as well.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello, everyone. It is another great day in South Carolina.
(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: But is it truly another great day in South Carolina? Lawmakers are haggling over that. That's our "Get Real" segment, which is coming up in a moment.
Plus I'm being joined by some of the country's top political minds. It is going to be a great day. Maybe it will be a great day, but it's going to be an engaging and very interesting two hours for you. Our STARTING POINT begins right now.
And welcome from the Waveland Cafe, which you could call it a local hangout in Iowa, a diner. It will be a top political pit stop. Of course for its specialty, they have what they call the everything hash browns. It has tomatoes, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, ham, Swiss and American cheese. It sounds delicious. It cannot be good for you.
Our STARTING POINT today is one day before the Iowa caucuses. It really is all about the folks who are uncertain. Here's exactly how the race looks right now. The "Des Moines Register" poll, which is historically a reliable poll shows Mitt Romney in the lead at 24 percent. Right behind him is Ron Paul at 22 percent, and a surging Rick Santorum is coming in at 15 percent. It's been 459 days since the first candidate stepped in in order to start campaigning. That was Rick Santorum, by the way.
And since then it's been one of the strangest races ever seen. We've had five different leaders since the beginning of the campaign. Bachmann was leading, Perry was leading, Cain was leading, Gingrich has been leading, and Romney has been leading. All of that with just 36 hours to go before the caucuses begin. It really could be anyone's game. Here's why -- 41 percent of potential caucus goers could be swayed to vote for another candidate. Another seven percent are unsure. That's according to the latest "Des Moines Register" poll.
And it's not just the voters who can't make up their minds. Top Iowa Republicans are holding back on endorsements as well. Republican governor Terry Branstad, senior Charles Grassley, Representative Pete King are all uncommitted, will not make an endorsement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD, (R) IOWA: It is really wide open and it really depends upon who turns out.
REP. STEVE KING, (R) IOWA: I haven't seen that with the clarity I want to see.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY, (R) IOWA: I think you'll end up with three or four people that are going to be between 17 and 23 percent, and four people can go out of here saying that he have a ticket to New Hampshire.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'BRIEN: An endorsement that could make a difference is one coming from Iowa Congressman Steve King, evangelical conservative Christian, member of the Tea Party caucus. It's nice to have you and to be here in your state, sir. Thanks for being with us this morning. Explain to me, why all the volatility? What's it about?
REP. STEVE KING, (R) IOWA: I think the way to characterize this race, Soledad, is it's been a never ending series of "king of the him."
O'BRIEN: For a minute each time?
KING: Even Tim Pawlenty, he was the first one to climb the hill. He started early and he ran an expensive campaign, well organized. And he got to the straw poll and the morning after he decided he would pull the plug on his race. He was favored going in and finished, I think, third and pulled out of the race. And Michele Bachmann won the straw poll. She got maybe five minutes because Rick Perry jumped in right in the middle of the straw poll. And the cycle went on.
O'BRIEN: It looks like this if you're following it. So why? What explains the volatility?
KING: Well, King of the Hill explains it. If you're at the top of the hill, everybody has to try to pull you down, and your negatives get illuminated and a lot of scrutiny goes on. If you have five or six people trying to pull you off the hill, eventually they do that, someone else takes the top of the hill. I think what Mitt Romney has done, he's hung around. He hasn't actually claimed the top of the hill and decide head was going to own it until about now.
O'BRIEN: How much of it is that the voters just feel eh about the candidate? There's no real love for somebody really emerging?
KING: They have been going shopping. They look at a candidate and think, I like all of these things about them, but it isn't all the things I want to see in the next president of the United States. So it holds some of them back.
And it's true. Of course, we don't have a perfect candidate, but we could make a perfect candidate out of the candidates that are there, and that's the difference. There is -- it isn't all embodied in one.
O'BRIEN: Which would be what? What's the perfect candidate? The what of Newt Gingrich? The what of Mitt Romney?
KING: I go this way. If I want the consummate executive I know the trains will run on time who has an executive office in business and in the political world, that's Mitt Romney. He will run the shop and it will be efficient.
If you want somebody who understands the full flow of history and how all of government works, not just a smaller executive branch works but all of government, that's Newt Gingrich, Newt Gingrich who is brilliant and he'll bring a lot of things to the table, and he'll change the game. He is a game-changer. There is a little risk with a game-changer, but can you do glorious things. And Ron Paul, I give him significant credit for what he's done for constitutional, cutting spending down, and going down through all that. But his weak spot is this idea of national defense being bring all of our military back to the United States. The vacuum of power that would be created globally would be a calamity that Americans would pay for, and we could never recover from such a decision, and a president could make that decision unchecked.
Rick Santorum, he's very, very strong on constitutionalism, life and families, and he's very good and very knowledgeable about the radical Islam component in the world. He'd be strong in both of those categories. Not as good an understanding I don't think of the economics. He hasn't lived it the way others have.
Michele Bachmann checks all of the boxes for me. She gets all of these pieces right.
KING: The traction in the campaign is harder, and that's kind of where it stands.
O'BRIEN: Are you going to endorse somebody?
KING: At this point I haven't made a decision --
O'BRIEN: Right now on my new show?
KING: It would have been really nice if I woke up this morning and I would have had that epiphany and I would have been able to make that endorsement. I said it has to be a conviction. And unless and until a conviction comes, I'm not going to be able to do that.
O'BRIEN: Congressman Steve King, thanks for talking to us.
KING: Thanks for having me.
O'BRIEN: Let's bring in our panelists to talk about what the congressman has just raised. Ron Brown joins us from "National Journal." We have Alex Castellanos joining us as well, a Republican consultant, and Simon Conway is a radio host. You've interviewed, Simon, every candidate I believe except for Huntsman, who moved on to --
O'BRIEN: So snarkiness goes both ways, I see, because the candidate himself was also being snarky about your fine state.
SIMON CONWAY, HOST, "THE SIMON CONWAY SHOW," NEW RADIO 1040: Absolutely. Apparently he only wants to be president of 49 states. I find that strange. As for Congressman King, he's saving his endorsement for when on my show this afternoon. O'BRIEN: You know that will kill me, if you do that, sir. What Congressman King has said, though, is that there is a problem. There is no 100 percent right candidate. There are a lot of kind of OK candidates, and if you could piece them all together, one great candidate, which Ron Brownstein you cannot do. How big of a problem is this, or is this typical?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Was it Shakespeare? Eye of Newt?
I think actually this race has been obviously volatile. Probably more than any other Republican race since 1964. But it's been volatile, if this makes sense, in a structured way. It's really proceeded down two tracks.
O'BRIEN: That's seems contradictory.
BROWNSTEIN: It has proceeded down two tracks, which I think explains the volatility. You have Mitt Romney, who has been a front- runner, but a modest front-runner, who has done well with more moderate, more secular elements of the party here as nationally. And then you have the other part of the party, Tea Party activists, evangelical Christian side, that is dubious of Romney but simply has not able to settle lastingly on one alternative to him.
And the real volatility that half of the party that is dubious of Romney cycling through their alternatives from Huckabee and Palin who didn't run, to Bachmann and Perry, who seemed to have the best chance to pull it together, Cain, Gingrich, and now Santorum.
And Santorum's advantage is he is kind of rising at a very late point. He has clear momentum. I don't any anybody would be surprised if he gets to the top here, and it's almost too late for a candidate convincingly to be made here in Iowa.
O'BRIEN: Everyone is out of time.
BROWNSTEIN: But you still have these two separate tracks in the race, and Romney, I think, would be very comfortable with an Iowa result that sets up Rick Santorum rather than Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich as the principle alternative for that more conservative block that remains dubious of him.
O'BRIEN: How much is a fact in have been so many debates. We had 13 debates changing that sort of grassroots feel Iowa has always had? You talk about, I want to meet the candidate, they mean literally face-to-face and spend quality time?
CONWAY: I think the debates actually pulled that away from the people here. I think too many, personally. But the scrutiny that goes on in the debates is not really real, because it's all in 30- second sound bites. You can't have a conversation, a deep conversation about policy in 30 second sound bites. These are very important issues. As for the perfect candidate, there's never a perfect candidate. Barack Obama wasn't a perfect candidate four years ago. Neither was Hillary Clinton. You never have a perfect candidate to decide, because there is no such thing as a perfect human being. They're still waiting to find one, right?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: I think these debates are very important. They nationalize the Republican process. These contest don't occur just in states. They occur on cable TV. They occur on talk radio. And these candidates have gotten better. There isn't a single one of them on the stage that hasn't improved because of this process. They've been tested in a way they'll find useful.
O'BRIEN: They help the candidates become more ready for primetime, but it sounds like, Simon is saying it actually sort of added to the confusion certainly for people here in Iowa who want to have a conversation?
CASTELLANOS: Simon, one thing to remember is we haven't had a vote yet. Once somebody wins something, guess what happens? They become bigger. They become the center of attention. These things do matter.
But, look, campaigns don't pick candidates. They make candidates. That's what these contests do. That's what these debates are important for. So it's a little shapeless now. This all changes Tuesday, right here.
BROWNSTEIN: Debates have enormously changed this race. Obviously, you see much more of a national race. Candidates are spending less time here with smaller staffs. The CNN casts -- but the funny thing is, if Rick Santorum does as well as seems possible, it's a throwback. This is the kind of Iowa-specific campaign, visiting every county, hundreds of town meetings, kind of like a Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. He's still only at five percent nationally in the polls. That was the kind of disparity, the arbitrage that didn't seem possible anymore. And voters in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire would not settle on a candidate if they didn't seem viable nationally, but Rick Santorum is, if he does well here, winning this the old-fashioned way.
KING: I remember Rick Santorum standing up before a meeting in Rock Rapids, Iowa, the southwest corner of the state months and months ago. And he laid it out. This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go to all 99 counties. I've going to earn this the old-fashioned way. It's what we've seen.
I want to add into your comment that these campaigns, and this process, this is a gauntlet they go through. And it does --
O'BRIEN: Talks about the winnowing out.
KING: It shapes the candidates and tests them in a lot of ways. Can they raise the money? Do they have the stamina? Can they connect with people? Will their ideas withstand the scrutiny or one thing that knocks them out? It's a very important process and it's very personal.
O'BRIEN: The issues in Iowa very much mirror the issues for the nation as a whole except that in Iowa reducing the debt is at top of list and in the nation, and I think in the nation the economy generally is at the top. Number two is the deficit and number three is health care. Are these issues in that order, because Iowa -- is Iowa doing better than other states in the nation?
CONWAY: Yes, Iowa is doing belted better that other states in the nation. Unemployment is lower. So there's definitely a feel about that.
But also I think on the conservative side, we're very much a Tea Party state, and people have to understand that. The three issues for the Tea Party are very, very specific. Stop spending our money, balance the budget, cut taxes to create jobs where they can be created. It's very simplistic. I don't know why the president isn't onboard with that. It's so obvious.
BROWNSTEIN: You know, it feels this year as though the Republican party broadly defined has settled on their agenda and auditioning candidates to implement it rather than they're looking for a candidate to set a direction for the party.
Some amorphous blend of the House freshman Republicans, the Tea Party, the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, Rush Limbaugh, the party by and large knows where it wants to go. That's why I think so much of the debate has been about who is an authentic conservative? And you talk about how all of these candidates have risen and fallen among that morphed conservative block.
Inevitably what's happened is one or two things in their record come up that seem to clash with the priorities of that group and suddenly the whole edifice comes down. It's been a very difficult, being a Republican, so far, at the presidential level, to convince the Tea Party side which starts off skeptical of the Republican establishment that you can really trust me. I think that contributed a lot, really remarkable. So you have six different candidates ahead in the national polls. We haven't seen anything like that in decades.
O'BRIEN: I want to bring -- before I let you talk for a second, sir, Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, and she joins us from a remote in New York. Chrystia, when you look at this landscape and the volatility in the national polls not only here in Iowa, which is what we've been talking about, debt is a very big issue he in Iowa, and it's in the top three nationally. Who does that help and who does that hurt?
CHRYSTIA FREELAND, EDITOR, THOMSON REUTERS DIGITAL: Soledad, I think you made a really important point about the economy and how it plays slightly different in Iowa than the rest of country, a slightly different accent. And the fact is that Iowa is doing economically relatively well. We're accustomed to these melodramas about the hardships on the family farm, but the truth is that right now it's great to run a family farm. Commodity prices are booming. Globalization is terrific for the Iowa economy. And so I think that means that questions of unemployment, which are figuring more prominently in the rest of country are lower down on the agenda in Iowa, and as Simon was saying, what people in Iowa are really focused on when it comes to the economy is basically not wanting everybody else to put the country in debt, to force them potentially in the future to pay higher taxes.
O'BRIEN: Chrystia, Thanks.
We're going to say goodbye to Congressman Steve King who has a busy day literally sprinting around today as you wrap up your last 36 hours or so and you'll let me know when you endorse.
KING: Obamacare repeal is the number one issue. And then we go into -- thank you very much.
O'BRIEN: We're going to ask or panelists to stick around as we continue our conversation.
So our next topic is talking about Democrats. Are they going on the attack? They actually use the word "war room." You may be surprised though who they're going after. We're going to talk to the DNC coming up.
Also this morning, is it a great day in South Carolina? It might be up to lawmakers to decide. The state leaders are squabbling over a greeting. We'll let you decide what's right, what's wrong.
And so you're a Republican? Put it in writing. We'll tell you about the loyalty pledge. We're back right after this.
O'BRIEN: It's Waveland Diner you're looking at. We are inside doing our show this morning. Welcome to STARTING POINT. I'm Soledad O'Brien.
They're on the attack. Democrats opened their war rooms in Des Moines yesterday. This is a quote, "a home base for all rapid response activities." I am not making up that phrase. It's straight -- you laugh. It's straight from the Democratic National Committee holding news conferences in order to counter Republican talking points until January 4, like yesterday when they brought up a man was laid off from Mitt Romney's company Bain Capital bought his employer. So what's the Democrats' strategy? Joining us this morning to talk about that is Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. Thanks for joining us.
BRAD WOODHOUSE, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Thank you so much. Congratulations on the show.
O'BRIEN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Why a war room? Doesn't that seem a little over the top considering no one's really, really, caucusing for the Democrats with any kind of opposition to Obama? WOODHOUSE: We may have used moniker there, but clearly what we are trying to do here, a couple things. One, we are very proud of what the president's campaign has on the ground here. I think when this is all said and done you'll see the president has more organization on the ground here than all of the other campaigns. No matter who wins this caucus on Tuesday night, the president's put a campaign on the ground here. We've had 350,000 phone calls, 1,200 meetings, 4,000 one-on-one meetings with supporters, so we've very proud of that.
We're also here to correct the record. There's a lot of Republicans here, particularly Mitt Romney, talking about the president's record. We're not going to let him get away with not telling the truth.
O'BRIEN: So when you see all this indecision happening on the GOP side, you view this as a very good thing for Democrats?
WOODHOUSE: I'll say this. I think there's been a lot of discussion. Republicans might tell you there's been a lack of enthusiasm for the president. We don't believe that. We think what we've seen on the ground is counter to that.
But there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for a Republican nominee. They have the flavor of the month. We now have Rick Santorum. We've had Newt Gingrich. We've had Cain. We've had Perry. We've had Bachmann. And then we've had the flavor of the month and then Mitt Romney, who, if he's a flavor, he's stale. Kind of stuck --
O'BRIEN: Nice going back and forth on this. So who does Obama want to win?
WOODHOUSE: We think in the end the president's record will prevail in the eviction.
O'BRIEN: People always say that.
WOODHOUSE: Look, the president will not run against anyone if he had his --
O'BRIEN: Who would he choose of the list out there now?
WOODHOUSE: We're not about to do that. We're not about to try to puck their nominee. All of them subscribe to the same economic philosophy that got us into the mess that we found ourselves in 2008. So we think that's going to be a heck of an argument to talk about repealing Wall Street reform, going back and doing those same things that caused the economic collapse.
O'BRIEN: What's the campaign's biggest worry?
WOODHOUSE: The worry here in Iowa?
O'BRIEN: Yes. What's your biggest concern? What's your biggest challenge? WOODHOUSE: Well I don't think we have a concern on our side. We're very happy with what we've put on the ground here in terms of our organization. And we think that Iowa's going to be back in the president's camp.
Look, we've met with 4,000 people one-on-one. It's kind of an unprecedented thing. Campaigns these days really cut to the quick. They do phone calls, focus groups, polls. We're meeting with people one-on-one and that's going to be key for wining this race.
O'BRIEN: Thank you. Appreciate it.
WOODHOUSE: Thank you.
O'BRIEN: Coming up, what if it's not a great day in South Carolina? Some interesting law makers who want to outlaw what is now a state mandated greeting. We'll talk about it in our "Get Real" segment coming up next.
O'BRIEN: See that? It says, "Lunch specials -- CNN." Welcome, everybody. We're coming to you from the Waveland Cafe, which is where we're reporting live our new show STARTING POINT. I'm Soledad O'Brien.
So I want to tell you a little bit about something that seems a little bit crazy to me. There's this new greeting. Throw that a little bit. Columbia, South Carolina is what we're talking about, the capital of the Palmetto State. Of course, January 21 is their primary, a place so lovely that the Republican governor Nikki Haley has now mandated that all state agency employees, herself included, will answer the phone just like this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello, everyone. It is another great day in South Carolina.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'BRIEN: "It is another great day in South Carolina." Governor Haley is doing it because she's proud of South Carolina and she's trying to change the culture of the state.
It seems some Democrats have a problem with this. They have filed a pre-bill that would make it a crime, no joke, a crime to make -- slow down, prompter. I've got to get this right. Back up. Back up. I've got to get this quote. Back up a little bit. Back up. Right there. "Connoting the advantages" -- roll back up again so I can see the quote. I want to get it right. I don't want to get sued by lawmakers.
"Connoting the advantages of or a general" -- wrong direction -- keep going. Keep going. Keep going. They're killing me. Here it is. "Connoting the advantages of or a general pleasant demeanor of" -- or "a general demeanor this state so long as the state's unemployment right is at five percent or higher. All the citizens of the state don't have health insurance, and school funding is not sufficient to ensure that all students are prepared for the 21st century and more."
Meanwhile, if those things are not in, then they want the greeting. Whether you agree people shouldn't be forced to answer the phone a certain way, that might be part of the issue for you, or maybe you feel South Carolina actually has big problems. We're asking, is this the best way for legislators to spend their time, haggling over the hello people say they answer the phone? It's this kind of idiocy we believe that has voters telling lawmakers to get real.
Still ahead this morning, the Hawkeye nation about to become the first in the nation to pick a Republican to face President Obama in November. What that means for the party's nomination. Stay with us.
O'BRIEN: Welcome back to the Waveland Cafe. Some folks joining us early this morning. Today, Republican candidates will make their closing arguments to the voters on the eve of the caucuses.
The final pre-caucus poll done by the "Des Moines Register" shows Mitt Romney is just ahead of Ron Paul with a late surge in Rick Santorum.
Iowa, of course, the first prize in the Republican presidential race and many question why the state that holds the coveted political position, because Iowans tell us they think they know. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Iowa should continue going first because it's tradition. I mean, it's always been like this, and it should always be like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's different than a primary. A caucus deals with the grass roots, deals with people in small rooms like this, able to talk 20 candidates, question candidates. So you're getting a broader viewpoint of the electorate, versus a primary system. So that it's a more accurate rendition of what's happening.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I think if we don't choose a candidate during our caucus, that is a viable candidate, and goes on to win the nomination I think we will lose some of our importance. I think we really need to take our role seriously and consider who we want to be our nominee. Not just who's popular at the moment.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'BRIEN: So how often does Iowa select the party's actual nominee? Well, since 1980, just three times out of six times. That includes George H.W. Bush back in 1980. Bob Dole in '88 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 who then failed to take the nomination.
It was seemed to field the argument that maybe Iowa shouldn't be first. Until recently the major candidates didn't spend much time in Iowa. Jon Huntsman, skipping Iowa altogether, said they pick corn in Iowa, not presidents.
It's kind of a snarky way to put down a state where he's not spending any time. Matt Strawn, he's chairman of Iowa's Republican Party. Nice to see you.
MATT STRAWN, CHAIRMAN, IOWA REPUBLICAN PARTY: Great to see you. Welcome to Iowa. Welcome to the Waveland, an institution --
O'BRIEN: Yes, I know and it's been fun to be joining everybody for breakfast this morning. Why Iowa, when you look -- people have said this. You look at the actual demographics of the state.
It's not a diverse state. It's 91 percent white and not really representative of a lot of other competitions that will happen across the country so why Iowa?
STRAWN: Well, I think there are two things. The first is, we start the process. We don't finish the process. We play the role of widower. We're not necessarily designed to be predictive of the final outcome, whether it's the nominee or whether it's the ultimate victor in the White House.
But it is little ironic seeing that statement that there are very few things that our last few presidents of the United States have in common. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but their paths to the White House did start by winning the Iowa caucuses.
And when you talk about Iowa not being representative, Iowa's popular vote in the presidential election is near the national popular vote the last four presidential elections.
So fifty comments notwithstanding, I don't think they would prove it accurate when you actually look at the numbers.
O'BRIEN: Can it be a whittling out process? I mean, potentially you look at sort of the various people who've been the frontrunners in this race through all the polling and of course, we'll know tomorrow night who's ahead and how it looks.
But what happens if they leave Iowa with four people who are considered very viable and they head into New Hampshire that way? Isn't that an indication that there was no win out of the process?
STRAWN: Well, you know, I would think Governor Pawlenty would probably dispute that. And any of the candidates, if it comes down to four that don't make it beyond Iowa. It's the role Iowa has played. We have a chance to kick the tires, look a candidate in the eye. Size them up.
In fact, candidates -- there's been more candidate events in Iowa than any other state. So this notion that there hasn't been activity in Iowa is actually, do the math. There's been more candidate activity this caucus season in Iowa than any other state.
O'BRIEN: But the person who's consistently led in the polls with around 20 percent or more is Mitt Romney, who's actually not spent that much time, who intentionally has been down playing Iowa.
The person who spent a lot of time is Rick Santorum and until he got a big endorsement he was trailing and Michele Bachmann who's really struggled as well. Those are the people going around, meeting everybody, letting them kick their tires.
STRAWN: Well, I don't think you can discount the investment that Mitt Romney made in Iowa four years ago both financially with infrastructure and with his personal time and the fact that he has not spent a lot of personal time here this year compared to four year ago.
No matter where I went this summer, there was always a Romney staff person signing up volunteers under and doing that organizational activity under the radar that perhaps you didn't see because the governor himself wasn't here.
So I don't think the death of the organized retain campaign in Iowa I think that's completely overblown and I think what you see in the poll numbers now verify when you see a Romney, you see a Santorum, you see a Ron Paul, folks that have had organizations in this state doing well.
O'BRIEN: So Ron Brownstein, let's bring in our panel as well. Ron Brownstein joins us. He is a CNN senior political analyst and also editorial director for the "National Journal." Kay Henderson is a news director from Radio Iowa.
It's nice to meet you. Thanks for coming in, and Alex Castellanos, is a CNN political contributor joining us as well. So you were nodding your head when Matt was saying, it is not the death of what people have called retail politics, which is the face-to-face, hand-to-hand, get to know the candidate? Really, 13 debates hasn't changed this?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, it has. We're living in a very different way to run for president. We've gone from what used to be called the invisible primaries, where candidates burrow into Iowa and New Hampshire the year before the vote almost unanimously to what really is more of a national audition.
Where voters everywhere are being exposed to the same media and those tides are shaping the campaign across the country. But having said that, the fact that Santorum is doing as well as he is, is a kind of throwback campaign to what we saw in the "70s and '80s.
O'BRIEN: You can't see it, but Alex said -- why say that?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Because there are two different issues here. One is retail politics and two is the importance of Iowa. Iowa is not the Super Bowl, but it is a playoff game for conservatives. This is where the right, the Evangelicals, twice at many here as in New Hampshire, they kind of pick their candidate and maybe Santorum.
He's run a great race, a patient race, but let's not give him more credit at this point that he deserves, which is he looks like he stepped forward because everyone else stepped back, and I'm not sure that that vindicates retail. Just nobody's seen him because he did retail. This is still a media-driven process, not an organizational process.
O'BRIEN: So, Kay, who has the most to gain in this?
KAY HENDERSON, NEWS DIRECTOR, RADIO IOWA: Obviously, Rick Santorum.
O'BRIEN: He just has to have a good, strong showing?
O'BRIEN: And he is top story?
HENDERSON: Because a huge debate about let's coalesce behind one of these candidate. There was even talk about asking some of the candidates to drop out before the Iowa caucuses were held. Obviously that didn't happen. And so his ability to start the ball rolling and become the conservative alternative to Romney may start in Iowa.
O'BRIEN: You know, guys, we have Tara Wall who is in D.C. I think for us -- Tara, let me ask you a question. We were just talking a moment ago about Rick Santorum. Let's not even talk specifically about him.
Let's go to Michele Bachmann. You could have someone, does really well here Iowa who then people will say, Ron Paul is a great example. Some will say on the national stage, there is a real issue with his -- his appeal to the voters.
Tara, how much of a problem is that? And doesn't that to some degree bring into question the value of a big stamp of approval from Iowa to a candidate who can't really make it nationally?
TARA WALL, CONTRIBUTOR, THE DAILY CALLER: Well, I think to Alex's point, you know, look, conservatives do want to be able to be heard, and I've said this before. They don't want the media selecting a candidate for them.
But I think that Ron Paul for all the strengths that he has, in some way has been brought down a couple of notch it's with recent revelations I think people are realizing that. I think to go beyond Iowa, he could capture Iowa, because of the strengths that he brings.
Because it really boils down to, you know, social and fiscal conservatives. They're all conservatives. They're all battling who's more conservative. But you know, the voters are going to turn out either on the fiscal side, strong fiscal side and that would favor a Ron Paul or a more socially conservative side.
But, of course, it would favor Santorum and to some degree Mitt Romney. But at the end of the day, beyond Iowa, it has to carry over into the national campaign and I do think Ron Paul will have problems for that very reason. I don't think he has the appeal nationally from a more broader standpoint among general Republicans.
CASTELLANOS: There's a reason for that. Ron Paul is a mixed breed animal. He is one-third Republican and two-thirds Democrat. When you look at economics, he's simpatico with Republicans, less government, lower taxes.
But look at social issue, he thinks like a '60s, if it feels good do it, Democrat, permissive Democrat. Look at foreign policy, he's an isolationist '60s anti-was Democrat. Two-thirds Democrat, one third Republican, he's got a ceiling in this state.
And that's why I think one reason as you get closer to the election, that's why he's sliding.
STRAWN: Take the personalities away from the candidates, look at message that is resonating with Iowans where take a Mitt Romney or a Ron Paul.
Ron Paul's ads had been about cutting $1 trillion spending, shutting down five federal agencies. Mitt Romney's latest ad is about the moral responsibility we have on the debt. So it's that issue that is driving. So it does have a broader impact on the Republican debate.
CASTELLLANOS: Ron Paul has been moving because this year, it is economics not foreign policy and --
HENDERSON: And Ron Paul's ads are by far the best ads this time around. I mean, he has one ad that looks like a forward F-150 ad with a very manly narrative.
BROWNSTEIN: The big picture is, the final three are Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum at the top and the point of view of the Romney campaign, the order doesn't matter that much.
The key is two candidates will probably have a lower ceiling elevated. Not the two, Gingrich and Perry, who might be a bigger threat down the road.
O'BRIEN: All right, I'll ask our panelists to stick around. Nice to have you. We certainly appreciate it.
Up next, Hollywood comes to Iowa. The actor and filmmaker Matthew Modine joins us. Have you seen these online? Satire, how America governs. And a loyalty oath.
O'BRIEN: So you're a Republican. Why don't you put it in writing? The Virginia Republican party is now demanding voters sign a loyalty pledge to the eventual GOP nominee in order to vote in the March 6th primary. In Virginia, anybody is allowed to cast their vote in the primary. Right now only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, of course, are on the ballot there.
Republicans are afraid the Democrats could make the decision for them. But one Republican state delegate, whose name is Robert Marshall (ph), is asking if this is the message the party really wants to send. Would they have voted in a Republican primary that required a loyalty oath when Reagan was probably the only Republican they would vote for? I doubt it.
Bring us back to our panelists with us.
Ron Brownstein is with us, CNN senior political analyst, also the editorial director of the "National Journal." Kay Henderson, she's a news director at Radio Ohio. Tara Wall joins us. She's remote in D.C. this morning with us. She's a contributor to us. And Alex Castellanos, he is a CNN contributor as well.
Nice to have you all.
Ron, so back up and explain why? What's the why that Virginia's doing this?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, this is what parties go through. The tension between on the one hand wanting to ensure your nominations are driven by your core supporter that reflect the values and priorities of the supporters and the need to reach beyond that. This kind of a really strange position in a state like Virginia, which is emphatically now a purple state, a swing state, you can't win Virginia anymore just by mobilizing the Republican base. You have it reach out beyond it to win statewide. You would think they would want to encourage as many to be a part of that process and the takeoff so they may be there in the landing and fall. Virginia could be one of the handful of states that actually decide the general election.
O'BRIEN: So, really, what we thought of Virginia so far, frankly, in are other candidates who can't get on the ballot. Is this a bigger problem, than the candidates not on the ballot in Virginia?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: One of the things that test you is your organizational mobility. One thing we've learned about Rick Perry's campaign and Newt Gingrich the campaign is that they can't organize their way out of a paper bag at this point. So if they can't run a campaign, how can they run a country? That's part of the process, is putting a machine together to get you on the ballot, and they failed there.
On the other point, too, I think Ron made, is parties are in decline. Parties have lost so much influence in power. Why? Guess what? There's competition. All the super PACs and --
O'BRIEN: So that's what this is about? A scramble for power?
BROWNSTEIN: Trying to hold on. Trying to hold on. And this Virginia process that is excluded two-thirds of the Republican candidates from the ballot in Virginia, maybe the race will be decided by then, it's hard to say serving the voters of the state, if you have a process that not only Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry also Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman didn't pass, who benefits from excluding that many candidates?
The bigger issue, who controls the nominations? Most states limit primaries. There's a case to be made for broadening and having Independents and Democrats vote or Republicans in a Democratic primary in more states. Ultimately, you need to reach beyond your base to reach most states. and the most you bring in at the front end, the more exposure you have in the back end.
O'BRIEN: Are you really wanting to drive your voters crazy? At some point, to me I see analogies with the $5 bank fee. People just get pissed off. Tara, isn't that a risk?
TARA WALL, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It is. I'm a Virginia resident. There are a lot of things to be annoyed at about in Virginia. The government can be restrictive at times, but at the same time, you know -- look, voters want to be able to ensure their vote is being counted. That's legitimate. And so you want to cover those bases. Make sure the people who want to vote can vote, are able to vote.
But I think that it is a little invasive to say you have to declare exactly who you are and who you're voting for. You know, I think there's serious issues with that. And I think voters are being taxed. But the issue over how Virginia goes about allowing a nominee to be on the ballot, that is something that's going to have to be revisited. No matter who's -- who's been disorganized this election, whether Gingrich, Perry, who didn't get on the ballot -- look, there are a lot of excuses can be made about not being able to get the rules right, as Romney said.
But at the same time, when states become restricted and make it so hard, it begins to dilute the process and make voters feel they're being taken for granted and forced to make a decision, you know, by the state. That's wrong. We are going to have to revisit some of that and voters would appreciate that. Take it from one Virginia voter.
O'BRIEN: When you look at Iowa --
One angry Virginia voter.
O'BRIEN: When you look at Iowa, though, what they do in Iowa is really exactly the opposite, right? You say you can show up that day. You can vote.
KAY HENDERSON, NEWS DIRECTOR, RADIO IOWA.: Show up with a driver's license, prove you live in the neighborhood and participate. And to that end, there are Democrats who intend to attend the Republican caucuses.
O'BRIEN: How big of a problem is that? Is that a big problem that people --
HENDERSON: It wasn't a problem for Barack Obama last time around. He got 80,000 new registrants on caucus day. That's huge. Those are people who weren't previously registered in the party.
COSTELLANOS: We agree that Virginia's process is too restrictive and should be changed. Would you change your rules in the middle of the process here? Do you think that would be fair to the candidates who did it the right way? They can't do it this time. They should do it for next time
O'BRIEN: We'll ask you to stick around.
And still ahead, we'll talk politics with actor and film maker, Matthew Modine. He is screening a short film on how America governs.
O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT this morning, everybody, as we are coming to you from Des Moines, Iowa.
Cause celeb this morning, actor and filmmaker, Matthew Modine joins us. He's here this morning. He is screening some short political films, including one called "I Think, I Thought." Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW MODINE, ACTOR & FILMMAKER: Hi, my name is Joe. And I am a thinker.
CROWD: Hi, Joe.
MODINE: I was saved. I had never seen such beautiful people in all my life. These people were my true brothers and sisters. People that understood the foolishness of thinking.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'BRIEN: So this is provocative, and also a satire. That certainly was where were you mocking, to some degree, the whole thought process that goes behind the politics in general and the election specifically. MODINE: Yes. That particular film was made during the Bush administration. And I didn't think there was a lot of thinking going on in our country. So there was a great opportunity for parody, and ironic satire.
O'BRIEN: You have done a couple of others as well.
O'BRIEN: You have brought those films here to Iowa. Why?
MODINE: Well, I was invited. The films have been playing all over the world, in Italy and Germany and Canada. Dozens of cities across the United States. Wonderful institutions, from Yale to the Society of Illustrators in New York City. And they just recently played at Dr. Oz's -- he has a thing called health corps. And what are you hungry for, is this project that I have there.
O'BRIEN: What's the goal with all of these screenings around the country?
MODINE: Well, with Dr. Oz, they felt that people are hungry for ideas. It seems to be missing from the political process in America today. What are we hungry for? And I don't think that what people are being served up is very satisfying.
O'BRIEN: Do you think people are being served up sort of the details of the horse race and not sort of the context of why there is this horse race?
MODINE: Yes. I mean, I didn't know what caucus really meant before I came to Iowa. So I looked it up in the dictionary, and it's an interesting process where people are supposed to get together and share ideas to come to an agreement about how to move forward as a group. And the group picks a leader. And that seems really contrary to what's happening in Iowa with these people that are really fighting with one another instead of coming to a consensus about an idea, about how to lead the Republican Party forward.
O'BRIEN: What's been the response of people? You have one that's called "Jesus is a Commie."
MODINE: Yes, was. Past tense, yes.
O'BRIEN: "Jesus is a Commie." And it's very, very interesting. What's been the response? That must send some people just over the top.
MODINE: It's a purposely provocative title. If I called the film "Jesus was a Capitalist," people would have wondered about that. Or if I said "Jesus was a Nice Guy" I don't think anybody would have gone to see it. But it's an important film. It's a very difficult film to sort of summarize in a simple sentence. It's a short film. 15 minutes long.
O'BRIEN: And you can see it online? MODINE: You can't see it online yet because there's some rights issues that I have to clear up before. But you can see "I Think I Thought" and "To Kill an American," which is the others I am presenting.
O'BRIEN: Very provocative, when everyone here is talking about going to the caucuses.
Matthew Modine, nice to see you.
MODINE: It was nice to see you. Congratulations.
O'BRIEN: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Coming up on the next hour of STARTING POINT this morning, we are one day away from the Iowa caucuses and one candidate is 1,200 miles away. He says he doesn't have any time to spend in a state that picks corn instead of presidents. We'll be joined live by Jon Huntsman here ahead.