DES MOINES — On the eve of ABC News’ Republican presidential debate tomorrow, “Top Line” went on the road to the debate site on the campus of Drake University to handicap the race and lay out the stakes.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told us he’s looking for a “hot” night inside the arena, with a field of only six candidates running out of time to make distinctions.
“This debate could not be happening at a more important time as Iowans are trying to make their mind up,” Strawn told us. “So I think the candidates are going to really try and create some differentiation as Iowa caucus-goers are narrowing that list to that one candidate that they will trek out in the snow, cold and ice for on January.”
While much has been made of the relative lack of on-the-ground organizations among the candidates, Strawn insisted that will be a critical factor on caucus night.
As for frontrunner Newt Gingrich, whether he has the ground operation to win the caucuses is “still an open issue,” Strawn said.
“Speaker Gingrich has a message that’s resonating, no question. Money’s starting to come in; he’s up with about a quarter million dollars of ad buys here in Iowa. And now he’s playing catch-up on mechanics.”
One candidate who doesn’t have to worry about his mechanics is Ron Paul, Strawn said.
“Obviously, I’m neutral as chair. But one thing that is irrefutable is that Ron Paul has a great organization,” he said. “His goal is to try and broaden that caucus electorate, and bring some of those first time caucus goers, which sometimes — you do need a better organization to demystify the caucus process, because some people think it’s this scary process … I’m not gonna declare the organization necessities is dead yet here in Iowa.”
“I think anytime you have two-thirds of the electorate that is still this unsettled and can change their mind, it’s still anybody’s ball game,” Strawn added.
We also caught up with great friend of “Top Line” David Chalian, Yahoo News’ Washington bureau chief (and a founding co-host of our program).
The key tomorrow night, he said: Will Mitt Romney back up his surrogates’ attacks on Gingrich? And will Gingrich fire back?