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GOP presidential campaigns look to the N.H. primary for the next challenge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in the Iowa caucuses, the first official voting of the 2024 presidential primary.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Trump captured just over half of the Republican vote. That was in line with months of Iowa opinion polls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We want to thank the great people of Iowa. Thank you. We love you all.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: While Trump ran away with it, the contest for second place was far closer, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at 21% and former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at 19%.

INSKEEP: Pollster Frank Luntz is on the line. I want people to know, if they don't, that you've been a pollster for many, many years. You've worked for many Republicans over the years, although you're more unaffiliated now. You've done many focus groups and so forth. You listen to voters a lot. And so I want to try to get your insights on what's going on here. A year ago, Donald Trump would have been the favorite to be his party's nominee, but I don't think he would have seemed assured of being the nominee. He would not have been as dominant as we see now. What is the shift in thinking, at least among some Republican voters over the past year?

FRANK LUNTZ: Well, I had the chance to attend eight different caucuses. And the one thing that I saw more than anything else is how passionate and decided Trump voters - Republican Trump voters are. There is no shifting. There's no flexibility. If you're for Donald Trump, you're absolutely for Donald Trump. So my recommendation to listeners is to take the numbers seriously.

Now, things can happen outside the political process. I specifically am referring to the legal situation that he faces. But Trump people are voting for him not despite what's going on in the outside world, but almost because of it. And the nomination speeches for Trump focused on his fighting for them. They focused on him being a victim. They were almost Donald Trump's words themselves.

INSKEEP: Those seem like really contradictory ideas. I'm Donald Trump; I'm fighting for you, is different from, I'm Donald Trump; I'm a victim; it's all about me. And just listening to his rhetoric, listening to Trump's own speeches, there's a lot more of the all about me. Do people not hear that side of it?

LUNTZ: That is a really good question. And what he does is, the reason why they're attacking me is that they want to attack you, and I'm standing in their way. And that's how he links it. And that statement is so appreciated by that Trump - I'd say it's 40% of the Republican Party. And as long as there are multiple candidates in this race, I don't think there's any way to knock him off as the front-runner.

INSKEEP: Let's think about whether the field were to narrow further. We heard earlier from our White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's in our studios now. And we'll be hearing from her again in a moment, I believe. But she was observing the two main challengers who remain are Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. If there's an anti-Trump vote at all left in the Republican Party, it seems to be with Haley. But a lot of DeSantis' supporters seem to be on the same page as Trump - the idea being if DeSantis went away, Trump's vote would increase even further. Do you think that's true?

LUNTZ: I think it's half true. But that's enough for Trump to get the nomination. Of all the people last night, the most disappointed person wasn't Ron DeSantis, even though he expected to do better than what he did. It was actually Nikki Haley because she needed to come in second to give her enough to propel her to a victory in New Hampshire. Make no mistake; unless Nikki Haley wins in New Hampshire, based on my interviews with Republican voters, then that's it for her, and he will sail. So we are going to know who's going to be the Republican nominee, I believe, seven days from now.

INSKEEP: How do things look different for Donald Trump if he makes it through to the general election as the party's nominee?

LUNTZ: Well, the very thing that makes him so popular among Republicans turns off Democrats and a majority of independents. And in the end, just getting your base vote doesn't elect you. But as weak as Donald Trump is, Joe Biden's support is even weaker. And I'm looking at intensity. I'm looking at the level of passion, the willingness to consider another candidate. We have two flawed likely nominees and an electorate that really doesn't want a rerun of 2020. And if you take a look at America overall, I think they're waking up this morning to the very real likelihood, as you say, that it is Donald Trump and that it is Joe Biden. And I think a lot of people are going to be looking for an alternative.

INSKEEP: Do you think - oh, when you say an alternative, do you mean something like the No Labels movement, which has gotten on a lot of ballots, or various other candidates who are out there - RFK Jr. - we could go on for some time.

LUNTZ: Right. And those candidates are going to get a fresh look. And if any of them gets 15% or more, they appear in the debates, and then they get a national platform.

INSKEEP: We hear from more progressive voters who are upset with Joe Biden about, for example, the war in Israel - war between Israel and Hamas and his strong support for Israel. Can you imagine large numbers of Democratic voters saying, I'm going to sit this one out; it doesn't matter if Donald Trump is president again - large, meaningful numbers?

LUNTZ: Well, the 18- to 29-year vote, who has abandoned Joe Biden now - I believe they come back. But African American men, Latinos have shifted away from Biden, and that vote is gettable. In the end, though, it's not because of Israel-Hamas. It's because of Joe Biden's age. And you can't message age. It is what it is.

INSKEEP: Frank Luntz is a pollster of many years' experience who was at eight different caucus meetings last night in Iowa. Mr. Luntz, I hope you get some rest.

LUNTZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And our White House correspondent, Tamara Keith, is here in Studio 31 in Washington, D.C. Tam, what do you make of what you heard there?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Frank is right that...

INSKEEP: I saw you nodding a lot when he was talking.

KEITH: Yeah. Frank is absolutely right that the Biden campaign has a challenge in that you can't fix President Biden's age. However, their plan is to, one, remind people that Donald Trump is not young either and also try to make this not a referendum on the incumbent president, but a referendum on the former incumbent president and what he might mean for American democracy - that turning off independent voters that Trump's election denialism has proven to be able to do. The Biden campaign also is very clear that one of their persuasion challenges is simply persuading people who are completely turned off to even show up and vote, much less to vote for Joe Biden, but even just to engage in the process when they're completely frustrated with institutions.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's been joining us throughout this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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