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MONTAGNE: Iowans will cast the first real votes in the presidential election of 2012 in just a little over two months. The state has settled on a date, January 3rd, for the caucuses that kick off the Republican nominating season. The latest polls from Iowa show businessman Herman Cain is surging, joining former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at the top of the pack.
Romney is in Iowa today, and so is NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Good morning, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So what does the former Massachusetts governor have planned for today?
GONYEA: Well, it's his return to Iowa. He has three events, all in the conservative, western part of the state - not exactly an area of the state known as Romney territory. But here's what he has: a town hall this morning in Sioux City - that's in the northwest - an economic roundtable in the very small Iowa town of Treynor - that's a bit further south - and then an event with the Chamber of Commerce late this afternoon in Council Bluffs.
Romney is clearly keeping up his message that he is the guy best-suited to take over stewardship of the economy. But also, perhaps by coming here, coming to western Iowa - a place with a pretty strong Tea Party presence - he's giving people a chance to ask him questions, to size him up, to hear him in person. And he'll also certainly have to address concerns that they have. Expect healthcare, Romneycare, to come up, things like that. Ultimately, his hope is to show them he's maybe not the person they think he is, that he is a true conservative, and maybe he'll win a few votes in the process.
MONTAGNE: Romney has not spent much time in Iowa thus far, though. Why is that?
GONYEA: You could say he has learned the lessons of 2008, his unsuccessful first campaign for the presidency. He poured a lot of money into Iowa four years ago. He won that Ames Straw Poll four years ago. But then, came caucus day, he was upset by Mike Huckabee, who captured the caucus.
So this time around, Romney is taking a different approach. I mean, first, he figures people know him, because all - because of all the time he put in here four years ago. But he is running a much, much smaller organization. He just has a handful of full-time employees. He is not ignoring the state, he says. But he's not coming here nearly as often. And ultimately, it feels like he's downplaying expectations. Nobody really expects him to do well here. But he's hanging in there in the polls, in the mid-20s, as he is nationally. And if he does well enough in Iowa, then it's off to New Hampshire, friendlier terrain for him.
MONTAGNE: And what about the competition? What are the other Republican candidates doing in Iowa to get ready for those January 3rd caucuses?
GONYEA: Well, let's look at Herman Cain, leading in the polls here, as he is nationally, just by a bit over Romney. But, again, Herman Cain has no organization here. He's not doing the things people do to do well on caucus day, to get people out to vote on a cold night in January. So he is testing that long-held truth in Iowa, that you need a ground game in order to do well in the caucuses.
Also working it very hard is Michele Bachmann. Remember, back in August, she won the straw poll. She was the frontrunner here. But she has faded. Iowa is seen as a must-win for her and her candidacy. She's been working it hard here, trying to get things back on track.
MONTAGNE: And what about that one-time national frontrunner, Texas Governor Rick Perry?
GONYEA: And one-time Iowa frontrunner, for a while there. His slide in the poles nationally has - it's been the same story for him in Iowa after just a string of bad debate performances and conservative doubts about him on immigration and some other policy issues. But again, he was more aggressive in Tuesday's debate. He has a series of policy speeches coming up in the coming weeks. He, too, is trying to get back on track, here.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea, speaking to us from Sioux City, Iowa. Thanks, Don.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.