STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's go to a state where Republicans may have a chance to gain a Senate seat next year. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin is retiring. To capture his seat, Republicans first have to agree on a candidate. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It didn't take long for Iowa Democrats to consolidate behind their candidate, Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley. He raised more than $900,000 in the most recent quarter, adding to what was already a significant pile of campaign cash. But on the Republican side, the six podiums on stage for the first candidate's debate say it all.
MATT WHITAKER: And I'd like to introduce myself to Iowa voters. My name is Matt Whitaker. I'm running for the United States Senate.
SCOTT SCHABEN: My name is Scott Shaben, and I'm running for the United States Senate.
SAM CLOVIS: I'm Sam Clovis, and thank you for coming out tonight.
DAVID YOUNG: If you remember one thing about David Young...
STATE SEN. JONI ERNST: My name is Joni Ernst, and I'm a candidate for Senate.
PAUL LUNDE: Please look at my book, "Meltdown, Second Revised Edition."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you, Mr. Lunde.
KEITH: Paul Lunde, a lawyer and gadfly-turned-candidate. The others are a former U.S. attorney, an auto sales manager, a conservative talk show host, a former Senate staffer and a state senator. At the debate this week, the candidates largely agreed both on substance and tactics, finding creative ways to say they'd shake things up in Washington.
ERNST: We have to cut our spending.
KEITH: State Sen. Joni Ernst.
ERNST: As a farmer's daughter who grew up in Southwest Iowa castrating hogs with her dad, I can go to Washington and cut pork.
KEITH: David Young was a longtime chief of staff to Iowa's Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.
YOUNG: I don't want to go to Washington for incremental change. I want to take on Washington with a big stick.
KEITH: But when it was all over, there was no clear favorite. Mike Ginther is a Republican from Urbandale.
MIKE GINTHER: Well, it was the first time I've seen all candidates. So I thought three of them were strong, as far as answering the questions and coming up with ideas.
KEITH: He's not worried the big field puts his party at disadvantage. He says that's what the primary process is all about.
GINTHER: The buzz is that there may be a few more that want to enter, so it's early. It's - you know, we don't vote on it until June of '14.
A.J. SPIKER: The field right now is pretty wide open. And we'll have to see, you know, how it shakes out.
KEITH: A.J. Spiker is chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
SPIKER: There is no clear front-runner. You have several people from several different backgrounds running, and there's no big coalescing behind one or the another. And so you're seeing that in the finances. You know, I've seen it in the polls, and just in visiting with people.
KEITH: It would be easy to chalk this up to the Tea Party versus establishment sniping that's happening both in the Republican Party nationally and in the Iowa GOP. But longtime state political operatives say the crowded field is mostly the result of top-tier, well-known candidates staying out of the race.
Dennis Goldford is a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines.
DENNIS GOLDFORD: In the absence of a big dog, all the little dogs get in and fight like - dogs.
KEITH: If no candidate gets 35 percent of the primary vote, the nomination would go to a convention, which would most certainly be contentious and unpredictable. Democrats are eyeing the open field - and potential for disarray - with glee.
Justin Barasky asks is at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
JUSTIN BARASKY: The Republican primary field is a roster of second- and third-tier Tea Party candidates who are beating up on each other and are going to continue to doing so, for the time being. And GOP strategists have publicly admitted that they're worried about their chances in this state.
KEITH: That is wishful thinking, says David Kochel, who was Mitt Romney's senior adviser in the state.
DAVID KOCHEL: We'll get a candidate who can beat Bruce Braley out of this primary. It's a great opportunity in a great year.
KEITH: In voter registration, Iowa has virtually equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans - which means this primary is only the first bruising fight the Republican nominee will face.
Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.