LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And Steve Inskeep, on this official New Year's holiday. Good morning.
Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has publicly complained, in recent weeks, about the narrative told about his campaign. He's referring to countless political stories suggesting that he can't quite break through. Republican voters seemed to have searched almost everywhere for an alternative.
WERTHEIMER: What Romney says, in his defense, is that he's stayed consistently near the top of the polls, as his rival rise and fall. A new Des Moines Register poll gives Romney a narrow, but hardly safe, lead in Iowa, which holds its presidential caucuses tomorrow. He's contending, with Congressman Ron Paul in second, and former Senator Rick Santorum who's climbed into third.
INSKEEP: NPR's Don Gonyea spent the past two days following Romney in western Iowa.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For many months, the Romney campaign was downplaying expectations in Iowa, keeping them as low as possible. It was a strategy borne out of the unexpected loss the former governor was handed in the Iowa caucuses four years ago.
But now, buoyed by steady and solid poll numbers, Romney is campaigning like a guy who thinks he can win tomorrow.
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MITT ROMNEY: Oh, you're just so generous. To be here on New Year's Day, all the football going on, thank you for welcoming us and saying hi.
GONYEA: That was Romney yesterday in Council Bluffs, way over on the Nebraska border. He spoke to a packed house in a high-ceilinged ballroom. Romney's presence in the conservative western side of the state is a sign that he's looking for votes everywhere.
On the stump he ignores his GOP rivals and targets President Obama.
ROMNEY: You know I've been looking some video clips on YouTube of President Obama â then-candidate Obama â going through Iowa making promises. And I think the gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I've seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of till death do we part.
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GONYEA: He said the president's economic policies have failed. He rattled off statistics; 25 million Americans unemployed or underemployed or no longer looking for work, median income dropping 10 percent in the past four years.
ROMNEY: Gasoline, health care - those things have continued to go up. The American middle-class is really struggling under this president
GONYEA: But while Romney wants to portray this as a race between him and President Obama, the contest for the nomination is only just beginning. In Iowa, he and Ron Paul are so close it's within the margin of error. And now the biggest story in the state is the sudden rise of Rick Santorum, who's now in a position to seriously think about winning in Iowa.
At a news conference yesterday, Romney was asked about Santorum's rise. He answered by reminding people that Santorum endorsed him for president four years ago.
ROMNEY: And we've been friends. I can tell you that our backgrounds are quite different. Like Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum has spent his career in the government in Washington. Nothing wrong with that, but it's a very different background than I have.
GONYEA: Romney has traveled Iowa from east to west in the past week. The issue that has most dogged his campaign, the health care bill he signed while governor of Massachusetts, has barely come up. No voters asked about it at town hall events he's held, though this young man did raise it as he shook the candidates hand after an event in the city of Le Mars. Romney had a ready answer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Did you say, you would let the states decide for themselves if they would adopt kind of a Romneycare type system?
ROMNEY: No, the states have the right to determine their own system for caring for their own poor, under the Tenth Amendment, just like we have now. So I would return to the states, the authority they have currently, because I don't want to see Obamacare imposed on the entire nation.
GONYEA: Plenty of other topics come up, some tried and true. In Sioux City, there was a question about gun ownership and the Second Amendment.
ROMNEY: Thank you. You know, I like all the amendments, including the Second Amendment. And I believe in the right of Americans to bear arms.
GONYEA: But for really off-the-wall, there was this one from the same event. Romney was asked if he wins: Will he bring back the candy Pop Rocks that fizzle and crackle in your mouth. His answer, surprisingly nuanced.
ROMNEY: There are a lot of things I can blame on the president. You know?
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ROMNEY: But I'm not going to blame him for getting rid of Pop Rocks. And I got to tell you, I'm afraid the market just wasn't there. But...
GONYEA: OK, don't look for that to come up a whole lot. But these are the Iowa caucuses - candidates never know what kind of pop quiz they'll face. The final test, in the form of voting, takes place tomorrow night.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.