Iowa's popular Gov. Terry Branstad hasn't endorsed any of the Republican presidential candidates crisscrossing his state yet.
Which means he can at least claim to be above the intramural GOP fray scheduled to end in a few weeks when his state's Republican voters attend caucuses to choose their preference for their party's White House nominee.
Still, Branstad will eventually be endorsing someone after the Jan. 3 caucuses. As he told Melissa : "I want to work to help unite the party behind the winner of the nomination process."
So he's been keeping close tabs on the contest as you'd expect and shared with Melissa some of his observations, which tended to mirror much of the conventional wisdom.
Asked what to make of Republican voters gyrating from one candidate to another over the months, Branstad said:
"I think it says people are looking for the perfect candidate. And I think they've now come to the realization there isn't such a thing as the perfect candidate. You need to choose the one you think is the best and has the best plan and vision to restore fiscal integrity in this country and also attract private sector investment and jobs."
For now, many Iowa Republicans are saying that former House speaker Newt Gingrich is the best candidate.
Branstad said he thought the former speaker benefited from his strong debate performances following his campaign's implosion earlier this year.
"I think his campaign got off to a bad start because of his criticism of Cong. Paul Ryan. A lot of people thought that was very unfair. Then he took this long vacation. So his campaign got off to a really bad start.
"But he's performed very well in the debates. So I believe the debates have been very helpful to him.
"People see him as an idea person. But there's also some concern about some of the baggage he has from previous things that have happened. So I think people are giving him another look. they like some of his ideas. but they're also looking for the one they think has the best chance to win in the long run."
The baggage included not just Gingrich's three marriages but his occasional heresies against Republican orthodoxy.
"Global warming is one, where he was with Nancy Pelosi, (the leader of House Democrats.) He now acknowledges that was one of the stupidest things he ever did. Pelosi is probably one of the most unpopular Democrats, even more unpopular than President Obama. so teaming up with her was not a good idea."
Mitt Romney mostly avoided Iowa for much of 2011, a reaction to doing poorly there in the 2008 Iowa caucuses after making a major commitment of resources.
But when Gingrich rose to claim frontrunner status in national and state polls (except for New Hampshire) Romney was forced to change strategy, putting more emphasis on Iowa in an effort to slow Gingrich's momentum.
"He has in the last couple of weeks really put a lot more effort here. He's opened a campaign office. He has a small staff but a number of volunteers and some very significant people helping him. Former Gov Bob Ray, Mary Kramer who was a former president of the (Iowa) senate and was an ambassador.
"So he has people like that that are working hard for him. And I know he has more visits here planned between now and the caucus. so I think he's trying to make up for lost time here. And we'll have to see how effective that is."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has been doing especially well in polls of likely Iowa Republican caucus goers. Branstad said a lot of Paul's success comes from the similarity between his fiscal views and those of many Iowa conservatives.
"I think one of the things that really has caused Ron Paul to have a lot of appeal is that he has consistently pointed out the financial calamity of deficit spending and the mismagement, that's the number one issue. So i think because he's had a consistent record there and he's been talking about that for a long time and has the courage to vote against a lot of that spending he's gained some real respect.
"There is, however, among many people concern about his foreign policy position, especially involving places like Iran. A lot of us are concerned that he takes an isolationst or a naive approach to some real threats in the world."
Still, Branstad said Paul's Iowa success to date stems not just from his fiscal views but his organization.
"That could be very helpful. As I travel the state, I see more yard signs, he's got more bumper stickers, he's got a strong organization and a lot of young people.
"Now, caucuses are Jan 3rd during the Christmas holidays. So I'm not sure all these college students will be back at their campuses. So that could have some impact."
As for the candidates who have placed much emphasis on Iowa but have failed to break into the top tier in the Iowa polls, like Rep. Michele Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Branstad said he wasn't writing them off.
"It's not over till it's over. The only poll that really counts is the one they take on caucus night. I think Santorum may surprise some people.
"Michele Bachmann did very well here in the straw polll. I think she's got an organization and may turn out some people. They may do much better than some of the surveys would indicate."
Branstad somehow failed to mention his fellow Republican governor in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
True, Michele didn't ask him directly about the Texas governor. But Branstad didn't make any mention of him either. We probably shouldn't read too much into that since it was likely just an oversight.
Nor did he mention Jon Huntsman Jr., though the former Utah governor let it be known early that he would be focusing on New Hampshire, not Iowa.
Melissa asked Branstad about some Iowans' complaints that the candidates this time around have been doing less retail politicking throughout the state, giving voters less of an opportunity to size up the would-be nominees in person. Branstad had a different take.
"I think we need to recognize every campaign is different. There's been a lot of social media. There've been a lot more debates than ever before. But personal contact is still important. And listen, I'm just very pleased that we have so much time and atention being spent in Iowa. And I'm really pleased all of the candidates recognize this is a real contest."
Not surprisingly, Branstad took exception to the notion that a relatively small, homogenous group of Iowans shouldn't play such an outsized role in the nominating process with their first-in-the-nation status. Iowans deserve their role because of how seriously they take their job, he said.
"You got to remember this is Jan 3rd. It's going to be at night. It's likely to be cold. Who knows what the weather is going to be like? You can't vote absentee ballots. You've got to go to where your caucus is held.
"So these are people that really care and really want to have an impact and i think that says something about Iowan's interests in really changing the direction of this country and choosing the best possible leader for America."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Yet another debate tonight for the Republican presidential contenders, this one in Sioux City, Iowa. A flurry of recent polls show Newt Gingrich assuming the lead in Iowa with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul trailing behind him.
Joining me with his thoughts on the campaign so far and the mood of Iowa caucus goers is the state's Republican Governor Terry Branstad. He's in his fifth term as governor and joins me from Des Moines. Governor Branstad, welcome to the program.
GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: Well, thank you very much. I'm excited to be back as governor. And this is a very exciting time in Iowa with the caucuses coming up here on January 3rd.
BLOCK: Well, exciting and volatile. Have you ever seen a Republican primary campaign as volatile and crazy as this one has been?
BRANSTAD: No. This is probably the most volatile one we've ever had. I think a lot of people are paying attention to the debates. And so, a lot of activity going on and I think there's still a lot of undecided voters. Primarily, I think they're looking for who they think would be the strongest candidate and have the best chance to get America's financial house in order.
I think most Americans realize that if we don't change directions, we're going be where Europe is today. And this trillion-dollar increase in the national debt we've had every year since Obama became president is not affordable or sustainable.
BLOCK: Governor Branstad, if you look at a graph of the poll data there in Iowa and elsewhere around the country, it really does look like a crazy quilt. I mean, you see Michele Bachmann up and then down. Rick Perry comes into the race. He's up, then he's down. Herman Cain skyrockets, then plummets completely out of contention. What do you think it says about the Republican field that so many candidates have been hoisted up as the next big thing and then tank very quickly?
BRANSTAD: I think part of it is people are looking for the perfect candidate and I think they've now come to the realization there isn't such a thing as the perfect candidate. You need to choose the one you think is the best. And the number one issue in this state is the financial mess America is in. Number two is creating private sector jobs.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about what's going on with the Newt Gingrich campaign. It was just a few months ago that that campaign was largely given up for dead. His staff had resigned on mass and now he's leading the pack, at least for now. What happened? Why do you think he's been catching on?
BRANSTAD: Well, first of all, I think he's campaign got off to a bad start because of his criticism of Congressman Paul Ryan, and a lot of people thought that was very unfair. Then he took this long vacation. But he's performed very well in the debates and people see him as an idea person, but there's also some concern about some of the baggage he has from, you know, previous things that have happened.
BLOCK: Do you think his three marriages, his admitted affairs, will hurt him among Iowa's many evangelical caucus goers?
BRANSTAD: Well, I think he handled that question very well in the debate at Drake University. I was there in the audience. And he basically acknowledged he'd made mistakes. He is now happily married. He's a grandfather. I thought he handled it very well, but he acknowledged the reality of it and there are concerns about it. There's also concerns about the fact that he's taken some positions they don't feel really are in tune with core conservative beliefs.
BLOCK: Governor Branstad, what about Ron Paul? How do you assess his strengths in your state? He has spent a lot of time putting a solid organization in place there, which is so key in the format of the caucuses.
BRANSTAD: I think one of the things that's really caused Ron Paul to have a lot of appeal is he has consistently pointed out the financial calamity of the deficit spending and the mismanagement. And so that's the number one issue. There is, however, among many people, concern about his foreign policy positions. A lot of us are concerned that we think he takes kind of an isolationist or a naive approach to the real threats in the world.
BLOCK: And what about Ron Paul's organizational strength there in Iowa? Do you think that could contribute maybe to a surprise on January 3rd?
BRANSTAD: Well, that could be very helpful because, as I travel the state, he's got more yard signs, he's got more bumper stickers. He has got a strong organization.
BLOCK: Governor, you've criticized Mitt Romney for not spending enough time and energy in Iowa. What's your message to him right now?
BRANSTAD: Well, first of all, he has, in the last couple of weeks, really put a lot more effort here. He's opened a campaign office. He had some very significant people helping him. He's also doing significant advertising here now. So, I think Romney's gotten in the game a little late, but he is making a strong effort here in Iowa, here in the closing days.
BLOCK: What does it say to you that the candidates who spent the most time in Iowa, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, are near the bottom of the heap in the polls there? It doesn't seem to have paid off.
BRANSTAD: Well, it'll - it's not over until it's over.
BRANSTAD: And the only poll that really counts is the one they take on caucus night. I'm reserving judgment. I think it's a wide-open race and we'll have to see what happens.
BLOCK: Governor Branstad, thanks for being with us.
BRANSTAD: You're welcome. Thank you.
BLOCK: That's Governor Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa. He spoke with us from Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.