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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. All of the attention that Iowa has gotten in the past year comes to a head tonight. Nearly 2000 precincts across that state will record the first votes in the presidential nominating contest. At most sites, Iowans will write a name on a blank piece of paper and put it in a box.
BLOCK: NPR's Don Gonyea and Ari Shapiro have both been spending a lot of time in Iowa over the last year and they join us now from caucus sites. Don is with caucus-goers in Johnston, Iowa, near Rick Santorum's election night headquarters. And Ari is near Mitt Romney's headquarters at a caucus site in Des Moines. And, Don, first, walk us through the caucus procedures here. What exactly will play out over the next couple of hours?
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, I'm standing in the back room at Precinct Number 3, Johnston, Iowa, Summit Middle School. This is a packed room. They had 600 people here at caucus last year - four years ago, it was. Many, many more than that this year, and a lot of observers.
We had Rick Santorum here, shaking hands and giving a short speech. Anita Perry, the wife of candidate Rick Perry is here.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: The applause you hear in the background is for Rand Paul, Senator Rand Paul, the son of candidate Ron Paul, who just spoke. Also heard from Josh Romney, who's one of Governor Mitt Romney's five sons. These speeches will finish up and there will be some more procedural business but everybody, as they came in, was handed a blank piece of paper. There's some markings on it but no names. At some point, they'll be asked to write the name, the last name of their choice on there. They'll put it in a ballot, they'll count it here. The results here will be reported to the state Republican Party. They'll aggregate all of the votes from around the state, from different precincts. And we'll get the numbers some time not too long from now, couple hours maybe.
SIEGEL: Okay, Don. And these caucuses, well, they all began just about nine minutes ago at 7:00 pm Central Time.
SIEGEL: Ari Shapiro, what are you hearing from the voters at the caucus site where you are?
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, I just snuck out of the room where my caucus is being held. But I was talking to people beforehand. People take this so seriously. It is such an important night for them, and I was struck by the number of people who told me that even now, they're still undecided. The first person to arrive at the caucus site was one of the organizers, a guy named Grant Young, who has been very involved in Republican politics for more than 10 years. And he told me, two hours before voting began, he still hadn't made up his mind. Listen to a bit of what he said.
GRANT YOUNG: Me, along with many other of the – what do they say – 49 percent of the undecideds tonight going to their precincts, they want to get this right. We all know we can't afford the policies and the direction this country – that Barack Obama has taken this country. So, I think there's a lot of pressure 'cause, you know, the old saying – if you don't win, you don't govern.
SHAPIRO: And, you know, that points to the fluidity that we've seen in this race and one of the reasons that people are reluctant to predict what's going to happen tonight. The top three candidates are bunched so close together, with so many people undecided, it could be a surprise.
SIEGEL: And, Don Gonyea, all of those candidates had events today in Iowa, they were campaigning. Give us some last minute snapshots of the campaign frenzy before these caucuses.
GONYEA: Well, they had small rallies. Nobody had anything big and massive because this was about, you know, meeting people, having last minute interviews with television and the like, to get the word out, to make sure people know not just where to go but how to find out where to go and that they had to be here on time. Again, because this is not a primary, you just don't show up and vote. You have to be here for the start of this meeting that you here in the background now and you have to vote.
But ultimately, all of the roads led back to Des Moines. I'm in Johnston, which is a kind of a wealthy suburb of Des Moines. Everybody is in this area, it's the major media market and it's where all of the candidates are holding events tonight.
SIEGEL: And, Ari Shapiro, you were at Mitt Romney's final Iowa event this morning. Romney's been focusing his criticism in speeches not toward the other Republicans but toward President Obama. Here's one thing that Mitt Romney said this morning.
MITT ROMNEY: This has been a failed presidency. I will go to work to get Americans back to work and make sure that job one is concentrating on jobs for Americans not just keeping one's own job.
SIEGEL: How is the Romney campaign feeling about the former governor's chances?
SHAPIRO: I think they're surprised. They're surprised that he has a chance to win. You know, the Romney campaign stayed out of Iowa for a long, long time because they got burned four years ago investing really heavily and then it didn't turn out well. It helped derail his path to the nomination. They held back this year but in recent polls it looked like he was doing well. So, just in the last week or two, Mitt Romney has been spending a lot more time here. In the last day, he was in some of the eastern counties where he did well four years ago. And they're hoping that he might actually – this moderate, New England governor – be able to pull out a win in a state that generally favors social conservatives and evangelicals.
SIEGEL: Do his people refer to him as a moderate New England governor?
SHAPIRO: No, certainly not in the primaries. We'll see what happens in the general election, if he gets there.
SIEGEL: Don, a lot of attention is being paid to Rick Santorum, since a poll over the weekend showed that he was passing Texas Congressman Ron Paul and that Santorum is now on the heels of Mitt Romney. What's happening in the Santorum campaign?
GONYEA: And he describes himself as the true conservative in the race. Well, he has been on the rise just in the last week and a half. It is so sudden, nobody saw it coming. I've been going to Santorum events here, among other events, but going back to the spring and he was always in last place, always in single digits. Nothing but upside, as they say. But he said to me, oh, three or four times over the course of the year, I'm the little engine that could, I'm the little engine that could, I'm the little engine that could. And sure enough, here he is, in a position where he could possibly win. He's certainly hoping to be top three tonight. But give a listen to this tape from former senator Santorum. You can hear him kind of closing the deal in his final day of campaigning.
RICK SANTORUM: Take a look. There are different ways of solving these problems. Barack Obama has one way and I have another. Look at them. Make sure they're real. Make sure that you can see how we can accomplish this vision.
GONYEA: Again, Senator Santorum's rise has been assisted greatly by the stumbles of others who took turns being at or near the top. But again, he says here I am and he's ready to go on to the next step.
SIEGEL: Let's get a word in here about the third candidate who's polling pretty well going into tonight's caucuses. That was Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. Here's what he had to say about today's voting.
RON PAUL: It's a wonderful opportunity to restate our sound principles about why this country had been great and what we need to restore peace, prosperity and liberty to all of us.
SIEGEL: Why the country had been great. Ari, where is Ron Paul drawing his support in Iowa?
SHAPIRO: Really, a difference in policy from so many of the other candidates. He defines conservatism based on a small military, civil liberties, a libertarian approach, which really sets him apart from the rest of the pack.
SIEGEL: Okay. Ari Shapiro, Don Gonyea, thanks to you both.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Happy caucus night.
GONYEA: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Okay. Don was in Johnston, Iowa, and Ari Shapiro was in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.