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If GOP front-runner Mitt Romney cannot quickly persuade his rivals and voters that he is the inevitable nominee and that further resistance is futile, he may be in for an expensive and time-consuming slog.

Unlike GOP presidential primary seasons of the past, the one that begins in Iowa Tuesday was actually designed to slow down the emergence of a winner by stretching out the calendar and altering the delegate allocation rules.

After concentrating on Iowa more than any other Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum is gaining on front-runners Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, a new Des Moines Register poll shows. Santorum is hoping to consolidate Iowa's Christian conservative vote — the strategy that won the state for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago.

Jeanne Zyzda did not expect more than 100 people in her Sioux City coffee shop, the Daily Grind. Not all at once, and not on a holiday.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates are stumping in Iowa on this last Sunday before the state's caucuses.

The only major contenders not in the state are Rep. Ron Paul, who is spending New Year's Day at home in Texas but returning to Iowa for several events Monday, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who remains ensconced in New Hampshire, where the scene shifts after Tuesday night.

A little over three hours outside Des Moines, Iowa, in the northwest corner of the state, is the city of Le Mars. A sign proclaims this is the Ice Cream Capital of the World.

Saturday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke in Le Mars at the Family Table restaurant. His speech, like all Romney campaign speeches, was about President Obama.

"This is an election to decide whether we're going to go further and further down the path of becoming more and more similar to a European welfare state, or whether instead we're going to remain an exceptional nation," he said.

Because the news media abhor the absence of drama as much as nature supposedly detests vacuums, Rick Santorum's rise in recent polls of likely Iowa Republican presidential primary caucus voters definitely scratches a journalistic itch.

Santorum's ascent to the top three in Iowa polls, along with Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has spiced up the race, especially after the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania spent so many months stuck in the caboose of GOP candidates.

It's hard for us to believe, but StateImpact New Hampshire launched just five short months ago. During that time, we've worked to bring you data-driven reports and analysis focused how business and the economy in New Hampshire work. Our goal is to bring you original journalism, to dig deeper into the big stories of the day, and to bring you the stories you didn't even know were there. And, we've tried to do it in as interesting and as accessible a way as possible.

We're going to do more of the same in the New Year.

With Christmas and Hanukkah wrapped-up, we've officially reached the pre-New Year's lull. This brief respite from the regularly scheduled holiday cheer is when many people take the opportunity to consider their accomplishments and failures over the past year, and resolve to do better in the future. Other people just go to work for a few days and get really, really bored at their desks as they countdown to their next party.

Either way, it's a bit of a restless period, isn't it?

Every four years, a small subset of political junkies starts salivating over the prospect that no one candidate will garner enough delegates to win his or her party's nomination for the presidency. That would lead to the junkie's greatest fantasy: a brokered convention.

Part of a series

With the 2012 presidential election on the horizon, NPR's Debbie Elliott heads to Camden, S.C., to hear from the close-knit Gaither-James family. Like other African-Americans — considered the political base for President Obama — they're concerned about the economy and today's political climate.

(This post was retopped with the latest news at 1:30 p.m. ET.)

Marking the end of the latest pitched political battle in Washington, President Obama said this afternoon that Congressional approval of measures to extend for another two months a payroll tax cut and benefits for the long-term unemployed is "good news just in the nick of time for the holidays."

"I said it was critical for Congress not to go home without preventing a tax increase" and the expiration of the long-term jobless benefits, Obama said, "and I'm pleased to say they've got it done."

Ron Paul Has Support In Iowa, But Old Issues Linger

Dec 23, 2011

Texas Congressman Ron Paul is anything but an establishment GOP candidate. Yet, he is at the top of the polls in Iowa, largely because his message appeals to more than just the typical Republican caucus-goer. That was made clear when he met John McCarthy and Michelle Godez-Schilling, both of whom attended a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa.

"I would like to say I'm an independent, and for the first time in my life I'm affiliated with one of the two major parties because of you," McCarthy told Paul.

You may not have heard of Buddy Roemer. But he's running for president. And despite an impressive resume and gift for turning a phrase, Roemer barely registers in the polls. He's conducting his quixotic run for office without accepting campaign contributions that exceed $100.

In the final leg of the campaign in Iowa, the Republican presidential candidates are talking about judges. No one has made them a bigger issue than Newt Gingrich.

Overhauling the judiciary has become one of his key proposals on the stump.

Conservatives have used "activist judges" as a battle cry for many election cycles now. But in Iowa, the issue has special resonance since the judiciary became a potent political issue two years ago.

Born in the spring of 1958, former Sen. Rick Santorum — the son of a psychologist and a nurse — was the second of three children in a Catholic family. The Pennsylvania Republican spent most of his childhood in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il has died of apparent heart failure. He was 69.

In a "special broadcast" Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" during a "high-intensity field inspection" Saturday. It said an autopsy done Sunday "fully confirmed" the diagnosis.

Kim Jong Il wanted his successor to be his son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s. But there was no immediate word on a new leader in North Korea.

As the final U.S. troops leave Iraq, they leave behind the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.

There will be about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq.

At least 5,000 of those in Iraq will be private security contractors, and there are lots of questions about whether the State Department is ready to run such a big operation in such a volatile country.

Romney Seeks Gingrich's Tea Party Lead In S.C.

Dec 18, 2011

It was warm and beautiful in the seaside resort of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Saturday, where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney held his final town hall meeting of the weekend. As he stood surrounded by supporters wearing campaign T-shirts, Romney's mood seemed as sunny as the 65-degree weather outside.

Romney had a lot to be happy about. South Carolina's Tea Party-backed Gov. Nikki Haley had not only endorsed him, she regaled him with glowing tributes at every campaign stop in the multi-city tour.

Lining Up With The Tea Party

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who led a revolution to bring down the country's communist regime, died Sunday morning at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic. He was 75.

Havel's close friend, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was born in Czechoslovakia. She says he fit right in the center of the modern history of Eastern Europe.

The U.S. Senate wrapped up a tumultuous year of divided government with votes that keep the federal government funded through September and extend expiring unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut another two months.

In a rare Saturday year-end session, the Senate's action averted a shutdown but was not the last word on the payroll tax cut extension.

Mitt Romney returned to form in the final Republican presidential debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Romney, who had perhaps his shakiest debate performance in Des Moines over the weekend, appeared to regain his composure in Thursday night's debate in Sioux City, Iowa.

He managed to once again convey the sense that he was the one GOP candidate of the seven remaining who could credibly stand on the same stage with President Obama next fall, the most electable of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination.

The influential writer and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday at the age of 62 from complications of cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens confronted his disease in part by writing, bringing the same unsparing insight to his mortality that he had directed at so many other subjects.

Over the years, Hitchens' caustic attention was directed at a broad range of subjects, including Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, Bob Hope, Michael Moore, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.

Politicians and journalists always run a risk when they judge a voter strictly on on appearances.

There was a reminder of that Monday when Mitt Romney was forced to defend his opposition to gay marriage during a restaurant encounter with a grizzled Vietnam veteran who happened to be gay.

As it turned out the vet, Bob Garon, also was sitting at a restaurant booth with his husband when the unsuspecting Romney, campaigning at the Manchester restaurant, asked if he could sit down with them.

Millions of Americans wake up each morning without a job, even though they desperately want to work. It's one of the depressing legacies of the financial crisis and Great Recession.

NPR and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll of people who had been unemployed or with an insufficient level of work for more than a year. The results document the financial, emotional and physical effects of long-term unemployment and underemployment.

Donald Trump's planned Republican presidential debate lost a major reason for tuning in: watching Mitt Romney contend with Newt Gingrich, the latest rival to claim frontrunner status.

Romney said Tuesday he planned to skip the debate to be moderated by Trump, the TV reality show star and real-estate developer.

The former Massachusetts governor told Fox News' Neil Cavuto of his decision to decline the invitation to the Trump debate being sponsored by NewsMax and ION TV.

With the Jan. 3 Iowa Republican caucuses set to kick off the "real" battle for the party's presidential nomination, there's word that:

So now it's Newt Gingrich.

In what has become the most improbable result of a most improbable campaign season, Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who has been out of public office since 1998, has benefited from a series of well-reviewed debate performances to catapult himself to the top of the GOP presidential pack. Not just the leading "Anybody But Mitt (Romney)" candidate. The leader, period.

This week, European leaders will huddle in intense meetings, trying to work out a comprehensive plan to solve crushing debt problems.

Higher stakes are hard to imagine.

If all goes well at a summit in Brussels, the political leaders will make an announcement Friday, spelling out their long-term commitment to a plan to loosen a choking tangle of debt troubles. If they can't agree on a plan, the EU debt crisis could lead to the kind of financial chaos that economists say surely would hurt the United States.

It wasn't supposed to end this way for Herman Cain.

His improbable run for the GOP presidential nomination should have served to burnish his CEO credentials, sell his books and enhance the fee the Baptist lay minister charges for motivational speeches and appearances.

This fall, the simplicity of Cain's 9-9-9 tax-reform plan propelled him to the top of a volatile field. Soon other candidates were rushing to introduce their own versions of a flat tax.

Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has just written a book about the life and legend of America's beloved canine icon, Rin Tin Tin. So we've invited her to play a game called "Rin Tin Tin is just the be gin gin ginning." Rin Tin Tin made us think of the Tintin comics ... and that sounds like Tauntaun from Star Wars ... which is sort of like TomTom, the GPS system.

Celebrity auctions have become common, but once in a while there's an event that will make almost anyone stand up and take notice. After a world tour, the entire collection of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry, clothing and memorabilia is on view starting Saturday at Christie's auction house in New York City.

After 10 days, there will be a four-day auction. Some 2,000 objects from the film star's life will be on the block, both at Christie's and online.

'Gutsy, Glamorous'

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