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Week in politics: Trump leads polls ahead of Iowa caucus; Biden and Pentagon chief

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Neither snow nor rain nor contradictory poll results can keep Ron Elving from joining us now. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The last weekend before the Iowa caucuses, the official start of race for presidential delegates. What's the lay of the land in Iowa this weekend? - as much as we can tell with all the snow.

ELVING: It's tempting to say that everything is frozen in place, Scott...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ELVING: ...Including the candidates. Caucus night is always a test of whose voters are most motivated to get out and travel to these caucus sites, but this will be an extreme iteration of that test. There's no sign of erosion, though, for President Trump. He's been leading the polls with at least half the vote, and it would be amazing if he got less. The only question is, who finishes second? And that was long assumed to be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But this week, polls have him falling behind South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has, of course, been the big story in the media now for months, even as other candidates, like Chris Christie, have dropped out.

SIMON: Donald Trump spent some time that he could have spent in Iowa instead of New York - instead, he was in New York at a civil fraud trial over his businesses. The judge says he'd like to hand down the decision by the 31, but even then, there are a lot more legal concerns that are going to take up Trump's campaign schedule, aren't there?

ELVING: Yes. He's been quite involved with this civil case, which does entail hundreds of millions of dollars. He showed up for closing arguments, but instead of addressing the case, launched into an attack on his political adversaries and the legal system until the judge gaveled an end to it. In the months ahead, he still has to face those criminal charges, federal and state, for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and his role in the January 6 assault on the Capitol. And, of course, the oldest charges for keeping top-secret documents after he left office. A key to his legal strategy has been to push all of these criminal trials back later and later and deep into the election year, probably until after he has secured the Republican nomination, which may be by March, and possibly until after he might be back in office.

SIMON: Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, President Biden has been dealing with his own, if I might call them, campaign distractions, including wars and a Pentagon chief who's been in the hospital.

ELVING: The war in Gaza has raised tensions in the region generally and brought on a rash of attacks on international shipping through the Red Sea. This week, the U.S. and the United Kingdom led several countries in striking the bases in Yemen, where one group aligned with Hamas has been launching attacks on the shipping lanes. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seems to have hoped he could be treated for prostate cancer without telling the president and others about it. Biden called it a lapse in judgment, but it is beyond awkward, and questions will persist when Austin returns to the Pentagon.

SIMON: And looking back to the presidential campaign, the saying attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, of course, is you go to war with the Army that you have. How is President Biden's Army of Democrats looking right now.

ELVING: Smaller, or apparently smaller, according to the Gallup poll this past week. Gallup has released numbers showing only 27% of Americans identify as Democrats. That's the smallest percentage in a very long time - and equal, by the way, to the 27% who identify as Republicans. Now, Democrats have not always been a majority, of course, but they generally have outnumbered the Republicans over the years through our history. Of course, I remember there being, supposedly, quite a few Democrats in 1984 and 1972, when a couple of Republican candidates named Reagan and Nixon won 49 states. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who identify with neither party is up over 40%. And, you know, it's not hard to understand. That way you can turn on the news and open the newspaper. You can hear about Washington and the campaign and say, you know, I don't really have anything to do with any of those people.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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