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In less than 50 days, voting begins in GOP presidential race with Iowa caucuses

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There are now fewer than 50 days until the Iowa caucuses. That's when Republican voters will make their first choices in the 2024 race for their presidential nominee.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The once crowded field of Republicans has shrunk, and the remaining candidates are trailing far behind Donald Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters is here to give us an update. Clay, I was in Iowa three weeks ago, and back then, Trump had a big lead over the rest of the field. It sounds like not much has changed.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: That's right. Good morning. Not much has changed other than this crowded field we saw take shape over the spring and summer is winnowing. Former Vice President Mike Pence got out and so did South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. Former President Donald Trump also indicated in Fort Dodge, Iowa, a couple of weeks ago that a big win in Iowa could really help clear the field for him early.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We have to send a great signal, and then maybe these people just say, OK, it's over now. It's over. We got to end it 'cause we have to focus on crooked Joe Biden and the Democrats.

MASTERS: So this is really unlike any caucus I've seen. You just don't usually have one candidate so far ahead throughout the entire cycle. None of the other candidates, including those who are battling over second place - I'm talking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley - are coming anywhere near Trump's support in the state. And another thing that makes this one so different is you have the current governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, endorsing a candidate ahead of the caucuses. This is a big rarity, and she's backing DeSantis because she says Trump can't win in a general election.

MARTÍNEZ: Thing is, though, politicians are still going to Iowa, so who are they trying to win over?

MASTERS: We can get specific here - evangelical Christians. They take up an outsized role in Iowa's Republican electorate, much larger than the party as a whole, and they really back Trump. But some evangelical leaders see opportunity. The FAMiLY LEADER, this evangelical Christian group that wields a lot of power in Iowa, held a Thanksgiving family forum. DeSantis, Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy were there. I should note Trump was invited but did not show up. And DeSantis tried to set himself apart from Trump to sway those potentially swingable voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: I'm going to be focused on your issues. I'm going to be a disciplined and focused leader in a way that obviously Donald Trump is not in a position to be able to do that. So I view his candidacy as high risk with low reward.

MASTERS: After that forum, the head of The FAMiLY LEADER, Bob Vander Plaats, who's historically known for endorsing the eventual caucus winner, came out in support of DeSantis, again, saying he doesn't believe Trump can win in a general election. And that's the thing - right, A? - very few in the Republican Party are saying we don't want Trump to be the nominee because he's facing felony charges to try and overturn the last election or the threat he may pose to democracy, it's we don't think he can win.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Not - less than 50 days to go, as I mentioned. And the caucuses, in case anyone's wondering, January 15. So mark that day on your calendar. What's left? I mean, what are you expecting, Clay?

MASTERS: Caucusgoers reward those politicians who show up in the state a lot. DeSantis plans to complete his 99-county tour of Iowa with a stop in the small town of Newton over this weekend. All these campaigns are hoping for a big turnout. With the race seen as a foregone conclusion by many, there might be some fatigue for voters who may not want to go out on a cold night, you know, before school and work the next day. But campaigns aren't the only ones who want those church basements and school gyms full. The Republican Party here wants to keep making the case for Iowa to go first in 2028, especially when you might remember national Democrats have indicated that they're done with the Iowa caucuses moving forward.

MARTÍNEZ: When I was there, Clay, it was 45 degrees in Iowa. People were out on Election Day in T-shirts, so I think they'll be fine. Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Clay, thanks.

MASTERS: You're welcome. It's even colder now. 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.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.