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Republican candidates make final appeal before frigid Iowa caucuses

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Today is the last full day of campaigning for Republicans ahead of tomorrow's Iowa caucuses. And for months, the presidential race has seemed frozen at the top, with Donald Trump the far-and-away front-runner. It also happens to be freezing in Iowa, which is where we find Clay Masters, who's covered a number of caucuses and is now with Minnesota Public Radio. Hey, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey.

LIMBONG: All right, so how's the weather there?

MASTERS: Well, Iowa is finally out of the blizzard warning that's gripped pretty much the entire state the last couple of days. But now it's the bitter cold windchills that are going to be an issue. You know, I grew up in the Midwest where it gets pretty cold, but this is a dangerous level of cold. It really hits you when you walk outside and feel windchills in the double digits below zero. I mean, it can literally take your breath away.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

MASTERS: On caucus night, it's forecasted to be close to 30 degrees below zero. That would be the coldest caucus night on record, and we've already seen Trump cancel all but one of his in-person rallies here this weekend.

LIMBONG: Do we have any idea how this extreme weather will impact turnout?

MASTERS: Well, I'm pretty sure it will. I just don't think we know for sure who it benefits - you know, maybe Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has visited all 99 of Iowa's counties while campaigning, maybe former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has kind of stepped up her campaigning in the state. Trump brought in a lot of first-time Iowa caucusgoers eight years ago, Andrew, and there's a lot of first-timers expected to show up for him tomorrow. But with him dominating the polls throughout the seemingly never-ending caucus cycle throughout 2023, there could be a lot of people who think it's, you know, in the bag and saying, well, you know, I don't need to show up. Why leave my warm house? And remember, the caucuses are not primary elections. You have to be at your precinct at 7 p.m.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Well, you mentioned Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis battling out for second place. You know, if the polls are to be believed, are there, you know, that many Iowans left still trying to make up their minds?

MASTERS: Well, this is the third caucus cycle I've covered, and, yeah, this weekend, before the caucuses four years ago, when the Democrats were barnstorming the state, I talked to people who had it down to a short list. And they do exist this time around, too. I was at the headquarters for the Never Back Down PAC that supports DeSantis. And while the place was packed with members of the national press and, you know, volunteers for the super PAC, I did manage to find a couple people who told me they're, you know, still trying to make up their minds. This is Paul Waddell, who says he thinks Trump has it locked up, but he's still stumped on who he'll support.

PAUL WADDELL: I've been kind of leaning towards Nikki Haley a lot of the times, too, or DeSantis. But, I mean, I kind of go back and forth. I wasn't really happy with the debate the other night, the way they went about that. It was just, like, attack mode immediately.

MASTERS: So Paul says ultimately, it'll come down to who he thinks can do the best job handling immigration at the southern U.S. border. I'm at a Nikki Haley campaign event right now in Ames, Iowa, at a barbecue joint and talked to Susie Richardson (ph). I don't have tape of her, but she was saying she was still trying to figure out who she's going to support. And even after seeing Nikki Haley, she said, yeah, she made a compelling argument.

LIMBONG: Yeah. All right. Well, Clay, this is the third Iowa caucus cycle you've covered. What sets this one apart from others?

MASTERS: Andrew, the term unprecedented is overused, but I can't think of another term to use. You know, you have a former president running again - not only that, one that denies the results of his 2020 loss. He has 91 criminal indictments, and he's the front-runner. You know, the race started out crowded, and we thought maybe, as people would drop out, there would be a strong Trump alternative. We've seen DeSantis and Haley emerge as the two dominant Trump alternative candidates. But this poll out yesterday from the Des Moines Register and NBC News, which is kind of the gold standard poll here in Iowa, still shows Trump nearly 30 points ahead of those two.

LIMBONG: That's Clay Masters now of Minnesota Public Radio reporting from Ames, Iowa. Thanks, Clay. Stay warm.

MASTERS: Yeah. My pleasure. Thanks. 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.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR