SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Iowa's 2012 presidential caucuses are now just about 11 weeks away and candidates are chasing after voters with increasing urgency. Tonight, a half-dozen Republican hopefuls will speak to a gathering of social conservatives, but before that there's football tailgating, pheasant hunting and more on their schedules. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us from Des Moines. Don, thanks for being with us.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: Boy, fall is here and the caucus schedule has been moved up from February to now the official date of January 3rd. No time to waste. Give us some idea of what's happening.
GONYEA: No time to waste, and the candidates realize it. And this feels like the first really big, really busy fall weekend of the 2012 campaign. We have Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul holding separate town halls today in the state. Rick Perry will have an event on a farm, of course. Rick Perry will also be pheasant hunting with Congressman Steve King. Rick Santorum will be pheasant hunting tomorrow with Mr. King. Mr. Santorum will be shaking hands at an Iowa State football game. And it's homecoming in Iowa City where the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing Indiana. Herman Cain will be there shaking hands and they'll be bouncing around the state in cars and in vans and in small planes. And, yes, it's very much underway.
SIMON: Mitt Romney had at one point thought that the Iowa caucuses weren't necessarily important to his candidacy. He seems to have had a change of heart. Help us understand why.
GONYEA: Right. And he is not here this weekend, but he was here this week. On Thursday, he went up and down the west side of the state holding three events. It was interesting because four years ago, Romney really put it all on the line in Iowa. He won the Ames straw poll in the summertime and then along comes the caucuses in January and he loses an upset loss to Mike Huckabee. This time, he's been laying low in Iowa focusing more on New Hampshire as the place where he would kick off a string of victories. But Iowa is unsettled, and Romney, as he has across the country in national polls, held pretty steady here in the 20 to 25 percent range. Others have taken turns being ahead of him in the polls - Michele Bachmann for a while, Rick Perry for a while, Herman Cain currently. But it seems as though Romney is looking at things and saying, hey, maybe I can do better than I thought here. Maybe I can win it. Listen to what he said at a town hall in Sioux City on Thursday.
MITT ROMNEY: I want to get the support of Iowans. I'm in Iowa. This is not my first trip to Iowa, as you know, and I will be here again and again campaigning here. I want to get the support of the good people in Iowa. I'd love to win in Iowa - any of us would - and so I'll campaign here. I intend to campaign in, well, in all the early states at least and maybe all of the states at some point. Look, I want to become the president of the United States.
GONYEA: So, again, Mitt Romney not predicting victory in Iowa. He doesn't want to build up any expectations, but clearly he's rethinking his chances here.
SIMON: Don, please tell us about tonight's event that's sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
GONYEA: Right. It is an event that will draw a very large number of Christian conservatives of evangelicals. This is a very important segment of the Republican Party in Iowa. If you look back at the 2008 Republican caucuses, 60 percent of the participants self-identified as evangelical. The key here is that that vote has not coalesced around any one candidate yet. So, they will be very important players over these next 10, 11 weeks or so.
SIMON: Don, how have some of the Republican candidates campaigning there in Iowa reacted to President Obama's announcement about troop withdrawals from Iraq, which effectively ends U.S. involvement at the end of the year?
GONYEA: No, surprise they've been critical of the president. Mitt Romney issued a statement describing President Obama's astonishing failure. He then goes on to say, and this is a quote, "The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or a simply sheer ineptitude." Michele Bachmann also called this a political decision, not a military one. It is interesting though because Republicans are sensitive to what the White House is doing in foreign policy. And Ron Paul yesterday, at an event in Newton, Iowa really tore into the president. Again, he was referring to the deaths of bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders and now Gadhafi. But just listen to how he goes after the president on this issue. Here's Ron Paul:
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: He, of course, has been able to come up with this idea that the more dictators he kills and brags about, the more he undermines the Republicans. You know, they think that's a Republican issue. He's trying to out-Republican the issue, and I find that rather disgusting that you just...
GONYEA: Again, you can hear in his voice the frustration but also the sense that the president is using this for political gain.
SIMON: Don, with this new supercharged schedule in Iowa, do you have any indication that the citizens of Iowa are into it as much as the candidates?
GONYEA: It feels like they're only just now starting to get warmed up. I mean, they were certainly turning out to speeches at the Iowa State Fair, then you kind of get a lull. And the events this week have been relatively small. They'll gradually build and you can tell that Iowa Republicans are just starting to get into it and perhaps even bracing themselves for the onslaught of ads and everything that will be coming.
SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea in Des Moines. Thanks so much.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.