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GOP race narrows ahead of New Hampshire primary

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In just a few days, the New Hampshire primary will be in the history books. But in a Republican presidential race that has been weird from the start, another big twist - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has now decided to suspend his 2024 presidential bid. The race is now between former President Donald Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Tamara Keith are on the ground in Manchester, N.H., for the final weekend of campaigning, and they join me now to give us a sense of where things stand with these latest developments and what this could mean for the Republican nominating contest. Hey there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello, Scott.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with the breaking news. Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, ends his campaign for the presidency today. He bet it all on Iowa. He finished a distant second. And up until today's announcement, he had really almost ignored New Hampshire, focusing on the next big contest - South Carolina. Franco, even in the recent context of DeSantis' fade, this is a pretty shocking ending for somebody who entered the race with a sense that he could supplant Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Scott, I mean, it was really an amazing collapse just from a year ago. I mean, he was supposed to be the heir apparent to Trump. He led in some head-to-head polls. I mean, he was raising a ton of money. He had a great pitch that he was - he had Trump's policies, but not the rough edges, not the drama, not the palace intrigue. But DeSantis' campaign, as we all know, just had so many issues, so many problems. Specifically, he just never felt comfortable with voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: It's clear to me that a majority of Republican primary voters want to give Donald Trump another chance. I signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, and I will honor that pledge.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, like you said, he banked everything on Iowa. He went to all the 99 counties. But Trump, you know, really essentially destroyed him...

DETROW: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...There by 30% in points. And he made no investments in New Hampshire, so he really had nowhere to go.

DETROW: So Tam, a familiar script here - Donald Trump spends a year or so really attacking a candidate, ridiculing him, often personally. Then that candidate get - drops out of the race and endorses Trump but clears the field at the same time for Nikki Haley, who now remains as the only Trump challenger. Any early sense which remaining candidate this could help more?

KEITH: Well, Ron DeSantis is much more of a candidate in the Trump mold than Nikki Haley is in the Trump mold. So it looks very much like Donald Trump, the former president, is much more likely to benefit from DeSantis getting out of the race. A new University of New Hampshire poll out today says only about 30% of DeSantis' voters had Haley as their second choice. So this does become a two-person race. This is what she said she wanted. But it doesn't really help her, though it will clearly define the perilousness of her path forward, the difficulty...

DETROW: Yeah.

KEITH: ...Of her path because all of the polls in this state indicate that she is trailing Trump. DeSantis getting out isn't going to change that.

DETROW: And we're going to get back to Haley's path forward and the race between Haley and Trump in a moment. But Tam, first, like, let's just zoom out a little bit. In the video that DeSantis posted dropping out of the race, he did take one quick swipe at Nikki Haley, but he really talked about Trump like Trump is the last candidate standing. Like, he's the de facto nominee already. And that is the latest twist in a race that has felt so strange, so different in so many different ways.

Tam, you've covered a lot of New Hampshire primaries at this point. I know you've had the maple bacon at the Red Arrow Diner a few times now, as have I, but I mean, as you were in the state this weekend, just how different did New Hampshire feel?

KEITH: Well, the legendary mug o' bacon lives on. However, the feel of the New Hampshire primary is just different and in several ways. One, there isn't this large field of candidates. I'm thinking about 2016. It was still a pretty crowded field on the Republican side and quite competitive on the Democratic side. Going back to 2020, it was super competitive among the Democrats, and there were a ton of candidates still in. And what that meant is that there were events all over the state, and voters could get real close contact with the candidates. In New Hampshire this week, it was like a ratio of 10 to 1 of journalists to real voters.

DETROW: Wow.

KEITH: And it was hard for the candidate to even get to the voters because there were so many reporters, you know, like, falling all over each other. It's just a very different situation because the field is so small and one of the candidates is not even doing the traditional New Hampshire thing. Former President Trump is holding rallies. He's not, you know, going to the Red Arrow or other diners and, you know, spending time getting to know people.

DETROW: Yeah.

KEITH: I talked to a voter who said, you know, I believe that I have to meet every single person before I vote on them. Well, that's just not the experience that's happening this time.

DETROW: Yeah. Well, let's talk about Haley specifically. We have talked all week about how New Hampshire may be just a do-or-die state for Haley. If she can't beat Trump here with the amount of independent voters in the state, with the poll numbers here compared to other states, it just seems unlikely to happen. Did either of you get that sense of urgency from Haley herself at her events this weekend?

KEITH: Yeah. At one point, I overheard her telling a voter, quote, "we have a country to save. We have to get it done." And certainly, her campaign is dumping money into the state and her allied super PACs. So Haley and her allies have spent $31 million on ads in the state. They are blanketing the airwaves, including an ad from the popular Republican governor of the state, Governor Sununu, saying Haley is the only one who can stop Trump. Let's change the narrative of this race. Let's do it right here, right now.

So there is that urgency. She's spending on ads in the state about twice as much as Trump. But the applause at her events is polite, whereas the applause at a Trump rally is the same big roar that you always see at a Trump rally.

DETROW: Yeah. Franco?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I'll just add that, you know, I mean, while those numbers are much smaller at Haley's events, I will say that the people I've spoken to are - definitely feel the urgency. They're taking it extremely serious, and they absolutely understand the magnitude of their vote on Tuesday. I mean, I spoke with Mike Kornblum (ph). He's of Londonderry. I mean, he told me that he sees this vote likely determining not only the nominee for the party but also the future of the Republican Party going forward.

MIKE KORNBLUM: I think it's critical. I think we're looking at very, very different people in Donald Trump versus virtually anybody else you would compare him to. He's a unique character, and depending on your point of view about that, I think he's either a savior or an incredible threat.

ORDOÑEZ: And, you know, just to build on what Tams was saying about the crowds, I mean, I've talked to a lot of veterans of the New Hampshire primaries who told me that, you know, there - at this time on Sunday before the primary, there are thousands attending these rallies. You're not seeing thousands at a Haley rally right now. And that just puts so much more weight on these independent voters - or, as they're called here in New Hampshire, the undeclared voters - because they, as we've reported, are allowed to vote in either the Republican primary or the Democratic primary. But they're likely to pick the Republican primary because that's where the action is. And that's how...

DETROW: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: That's what Haley is going to need to win.

DETROW: In the couple of minutes we have left, I do want to touch on two themes that have emerged from the campaigning this weekend. Franco, it did jump out to me that even as Trump has this big lead, he seems to have - feel threatened enough by Haley over the past few days that he's returned to a tried-and-true Trump playbook of painting his opponent as un-American.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, it's really nothing new for Trump. You know, his attacks are particularly cutting online, where he's kind of mangled Haley's name, highlighting, you know, her Sikh Indian heritage. He's also actually promoted these false claims that she's not eligible to run for president because her parents were not citizens when she was born. But as - of course, she was born in the United States, and therefore she's a naturalized citizen, and she's eligible to be president.

As you note, I mean, this is not necessarily a new thing for Trump. I mean, he's - obviously, he cut his teeth politically kind of backing those birther conspiracy theories - pardon me - against former President Barack Obama, and it's really just, you know, lies that many saw as a racist dog whistle.

DETROW: Yeah. Tam, another moment happened this weekend, and Haley attacked Trump for it. And this is something that the Biden campaign seized on, based on the narrative of the already happening, in many ways, general election. Tell us about this mix-up, that Trump seemed to mix Nikki Haley up with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

KEITH: Yeah. It happened Friday night at a smaller rally that Trump held in Concord, and he was delivering one of his usual rants about January 6 and Nancy Pelosi. But then he said Nikki Haley instead of Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: By the way, they never report the crowd on January 6. You know, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley - you know, they - do you know they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything, deleted and destroyed all of it? All of it - because of lots of things - like Nikki Haley is in charge of security.

KEITH: So a lot of falsehoods there in addition to the wrong name. Haley responded to that, saying that, you know, essentially, Trump may not be fit to serve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: We can't have someone else that we question whether they're mentally fit to do this. We can't.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Now, the - and that was one of her biggest applause lines. Now, the Trump campaign is downplaying the glitch. And just to put a - you know, an exclamation point on that whole cycle, Trump then, at his rally last night, claimed or boasted or whatever you want to call it that he had gotten another cognitive test and aced it.

DETROW: Echoes of a Trump news cycle of many years ago there. About 30 seconds left - Tam, I'll put this to you. If Trump wins on Tuesday in New Hampshire, is that effectively it for this campaign?

KEITH: Yes. I don't see how it isn't over after that. Nikki Haley is promising that she plans to compete, not just in New Hampshire but in South Carolina, and build momentum from there. But the polls show her way behind in South Carolina, and Trump has been boasting about all the support he has from the Republican establishment in her home state.

DETROW: If you want to get the nomination, you need to win a state. That's NPR's Tamara Keith and Franco Ordoñez covering the New Hampshire primary for us. Thanks to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Scott.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.