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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The Republican presidential primary season heads into another phase this week, as Colorado and Minnesota voters choose their candidates tomorrow. Over the weekend, Mitt Romney scored a huge victory in the Nevada caucuses, besting his closest rival, Newt Gingrich, by double digits.
As the Republicans battle it out, President Obama got some positive news on the economy last week and is seeing his polling numbers improve. But there are some other dangers lurking for him.
For more on where this election season stands, we're joined - as we are most Mondays - by NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Hello. So, Saturday night in Nevada, the few thousand folks who went to caucuses went for Romney big time. Does that really signify anything?
ROBERTS: Yes, because all kinds of Republicans went for him - very conservative Republicans, self-identified; Tea Party Republicans. Also, it was a state in another part of the country from where he's won earlier this year. Now, it did have a huge - almost a quarter of those caucus-goers were Mormons. But it builds Romney's momentum after his big win in Florida last week - to move west and do well. It gets harder and harder for his opponents to hang in.
Now, they vow they will, and Newt Gingrich is on the attack. I mean, he is really going after Romney. Rick Santorum hopes for a good showing in Minnesota tomorrow and later, in Missouri. And Ron Paul is convinced that Romney could self-destruct.
And, of course, he's given them reason to believe he might. He keeps putting his foot in his mouth; saying things like, I'm not really concerned about poor people.
But I think you're not going to be seeing too many interviews or press conferences. I think he's going to be very scripted from here on out.
MONTAGNE: So let's turn to the Obama side of this campaign season. On Friday, we learned the unemployment rate last month fell to 8.3 percent - which was good news for the president. If you combine this news with the bitterness that you've just been talking about, in the Republican fight, does Mr. Obama seem in a safer position than he did even a few months ago?
ROBERTS: Yes. There's a new poll out this morning, from ABC News and the Washington Post, showing that the president has hit what for an incumbent, is a crucial mark of a 50 percent approval rating. He's been below that for many months. And part of that does seem to be that voters are unhappy about the Republican candidates fighting each other. The president told NBC's Matt Lauer, in a pre-Super Bowl interview, that the job-creation numbers show that he deserves a second term - we're not done, he said.
But look, lots can happen between now and Election Day - as you well know. Not only can external events make a big difference, both in the economy and in other ways, but there can be lots of internal missteps - both by the administration, and by Democrats. We saw that in the last couple of weeks, where the new rules under his health-reform law have the Catholic hierarchy wildly upset - Newt Gingrich declaring that President Obama has declared war on the Catholic Church, and other Republican candidates basically saying the same thing, just in more polite terms.
MONTAGNE: Well, what about that? I mean, everyone thought the culture wars had given way to concerns about the economy in this election - seems like it's not entirely so.
ROBERTS: No, and the president's given ammunition there. These rules say that institutions like schools, hospitals, social-service agencies, that serve non-Catholics or other non-religious people, have to be covered with contraception, under health care. And, you know, it puts the president at odds with church-going people. And that's never a good place for the Democrats to be. They're always better off fighting on the economy, even in a bad economy.
And - even given that the pro-abortion rights people won a fight with Susan G. Komen in the last week, this is not good territory for the Democrats.
MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.