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With Iowa Less Than A Month Away, Candidates Enter Crunch Time


We've been talking about the 2016 presidential race for almost a year already, and it's finally 2016. The first presidential nominating contest is less than a month away. NPR's Sarah McCammon spent much of last week on the campaign trail in Iowa, where voters will meet to caucus on February 1. She joins us now. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. A month out from the caucuses - how's the race looking?

MCCAMMON: It is crunch time, especially on the Republican side of the aisle where there are still about a dozen candidates. So at the top of the pack, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and billionaire Donald Trump have been duking it out. You know, Trump was solidly ahead in the polls for a long time, but Cruz has a really strong organization in Iowa. And we're seeing that pay off for a few weeks now in both polling and important endorsements. Cruz seems to have displaced Ben Carson is the favorite of many Iowa evangelicals who are a very active part of the party there and have a history of siding with the candidate who wins Iowa.

Now, Trump is a new kind of candidate - a little unpredictable, doesn't fit a lot of the conventional categories within the GOP. You know, he does draw those huge crowds. He packed an arena in Council Bluffs, where I was last week, so still lots of excitement for him. He is getting some support from longtime Republicans, but also attracting a lot of new people who haven't been as engaged. So, Rachel, the real question is whether those people will go out and spend a couple of hours on a cold February night caucusing for Donald Trump.

MARTIN: So as you know, Sarah, Trump has prided himself on running this very unconventional campaign. What has that meant for his ground game in Iowa?

MCCAMMON: You know, as unconventional as his campaign can seem, he is doing a lot of the work on the ground that successful candidates do. I mean, at his rallies, his staff are passing out these cards, collecting information from people that they can then follow up. They're asking them to caucus - to commit to caucus. He's hiring staffers who know what they're doing. This is important in Iowa. The person running his campaign there ran Rick Santorum's campaign four years ago. And as you may remember, Santorum won in 2012 and surprised a lot of people. But as I mentioned, Ted Cruz is also very well organized, has a serious ground game there and the other early states. He's also got a big Super Tuesday strategy. That's a lot of largely Southern states that vote on March 1.

MARTIN: OK. What about Democrats?

MCCAMMON: Hillary Clinton has a big advantage in polling and fundraising, and she is the favorite of the party establishment - the Democratic Party establishment - by a lot. That's also very true in Iowa. So a win there by Bernie Sanders - or even, you know, a stronger-than-expected showing - could give him a lot of momentum going into other early states. A win would be a big upset. Looks like a big challenge for Sanders from where we sit now, but he has a lot of youthful energy behind him, and there are four weeks left until Iowans vote. A lot can shift in a short time.

MARTIN: As it can, things change from week to week. What should we look out for in coming days?

MCCAMMON: A face on the trail - Bill Clinton will be hitting the trail on his own on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton. He has campaigned with her a couple of times before, but largely stayed out of the spotlight so far. That's changing. He'll be in New Hampshire the first part of the week. And that could give some new ammunition to Republicans like Donald Trump, who has criticized him in the past for his history of infidelity and said that's fair game, so we might hear more about that. Also, Ted Cruz will be spending the week on a big swing through Iowa, really taking on Donald Trump.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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