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A month out from the Iowa caucuses, a look at the state of the GOP presidential race

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, the top contenders in the Republican presidential primary are touring the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: We can't have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won't survive.

(APPLAUSE)

FADEL: Recent polls show former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley now tied with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for second place in Iowa as well as nationally, and she's gaining ground in New Hampshire. But Donald Trump remains the clear frontrunner in the GOP primary, and he's using a Colorado Supreme Court ruling barring him from that state's primary ballot to raise more money for his campaign. Our co-host Steve Inskeep spoke with Republican strategist Ryan Williams and asked if any candidate has made a convincing case for why they should win the nomination over Trump.

RYAN WILLIAMS: Well, the presidential race on the Republican side sits today where it did eight months ago, which is that Donald Trump has a commanding lead, and every other candidate is scrambling to be the second place candidate. No one has really emerged at this point as the true second place candidate. Trump has a huge lead. Nothing has dented it.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Could any candidate have made the case that simply Donald Trump is the wrong person to have as president, given his indictments and his attempt to overturn his defeat after 2020?

WILLIAMS: It's a difficult argument to make because many in the party look at that as simply Democratic talking points. Trump has seeded this belief among many of the party faithful that all the prosecutions against him are witch hunts and trumped-up charges and political, and they discount the evidence that shows potential wrongdoing no matter what comes out. So it's difficult. If you try to position yourself as someone who's essentially echoing the arguments being made by Trump's opponents on the left, you look, yourself, like you're in line with the Democrats and then you have a difficult time winning primary opponents. It's just really an impossible task for someone running against Trump. He has such a stranglehold on a sizable majority of the Republican base that decides who the nominee is, and nothing has really shaken their faith in him at this point.

INSKEEP: Talking about potential alternatives to the former president, and one of them is Nikki Haley, who's received a lot of attention recently and has improved in some polls, but listening to you, I'm wondering if we're hearing more about Nikki Haley just because we're hearing more about Nikki Haley, by which I mean the political press needs a plot line and some movement so they write about her.

WILLIAMS: I think that's right. This really has not been a contest thus far. There's been no movement, really, in this race, with the exception of Ron DeSantis moving backwards, collapsing in the polls as the obvious second choice. Nikki Haley has had strong debate performances. She excites the ever-dwindling establishment wing of the Republican Party - the old establishment. She's a media fascination, but she's still way behind Trump, and she's not the candidate that excites the base at this point.

INSKEEP: Talk to me as a political professional. Looking at those polls, do you presume they are true, that Trump would easily defeat or could easily defeat Joe Biden in November?

WILLIAMS: I think it's too early to tell at this point. I mean, I remember back when I worked for Mitt Romney, we were beating Obama in some of the early polls, and then they ran a very strong campaign against us and obviously won handily. It's too early. I do think that Joe Biden has serious structural issues with his campaign, the biggest of which is his age. People think he's too old to be in office, and there's really not a lot that the campaign can do to fix that. He's not going to get any younger, and that's going to hurt his campaign. Now, they can prosecute the case against Trump to remind people about the major issues that cropped up during his administration and the way he left office and, you know, what he might do as president again and try to bring his numbers down. But at the end of the day, Biden has the age issue, and he's also got an issue with the economy, where people don't have confidence in the economy, even though the economy is actually doing fairly well, all things considered.

INSKEEP: Ronald Reagan was in this kind of trouble in 1983 with what had been a very bad economy that was recovering, but people changed their minds about the economy in 1984, and he won in a landslide.

WILLIAMS: That's true. And that just goes back to what I said. It's too early at this point to really predict the general election. It's not too early at this point, though, to predict how the primaries are going to go. Voting starts in a month here, and Trump is winning and he has an argument that is, I can win this election again. I can beat Joe Biden. And if he didn't have that, he might be vulnerable but he's not. So yeah, the Biden campaign has plenty of time to try to turn this around, but the long-term structural issue is that the president is advanced in age, and that seems to be one of the major concerns about his candidacy.

INSKEEP: Ryan Williams is a Republican strategist now with a firm Targeted Victory. Thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.