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Voters in Iowa are divided over Trump, showing growing support for Haley

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Iowa caucuses are tomorrow, the first official votes of the 2024 presidential campaign. With his massive lead in the polls, the caucuses seem like they're Donald Trump's to lose. Voters who want to participate will have to contend with brutal cold, even by Iowa standards. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Right now, I'm on a street in downtown Des Moines. It is absolutely frigid. My phone says the temperature is negative 10. That makes the wind chill negative 34. A lot of campaign events have been canceled or have gone virtual. But a few days ago, we were able to go to three campaign events for three leading candidates and talk to some voters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have some open seats up in the front row if you guys want to take...

GONYEA: Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made her case to a room of about 100 Iowans in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny. She spent the final days leading up to the caucus telling voters that Donald Trump was the right president at the right time, but that she is the right candidate now.

NIKKI HALEY: Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him. You all know it. Chaos follows him. And we can't be a country in disarray and have a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos because we won't survive it.

GONYEA: It's a fine line to walk, one designed to attract more moderate or never-Trump Republicans without alienating the Trump faithful that make up the GOP primary base. One voter who's more than ready to move past the Trump years is small business owner Cory Kelly.

CORY KELLY: I will not vote for Trump. That's completely off the table.

GONYEA: Kelly voted Republican for 20 years, but was so turned off by Trump, she voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Now she backs Nikki Haley, and she calls stopping a second Trump term the cause of a lifetime.

KELLY: We may very well not get through another four years of Donald Trump with our democracy intact.

GONYEA: Steve Boal is another Nikki Haley supporter. The retired finance executive says he likes her more traditional approach to foreign policy, and he thinks she can bring people together.

STEVE BOAL: In general, I've seen her try to be civil, you know, and that really grinds on me to see the - you know, people that just are really disrespectful of one another. You know, it's like we just need to have some civil discourse.

GONYEA: But he says if Trump is the GOP nominee, he will vote for him over President Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Please give a warm welcome to Governor Ron DeSantis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONYEA: That same day, down the road in the suburb of Clive, Ron DeSantis made the pitch that he's a proven conservative who can run without any distractions.

RON DESANTIS: Donald Trump - if he's the nominee, the whole election is going to be about legal issues, criminal trials, maybe criminal convictions by then, January 6, all of that.

GONYEA: But polls have shown DeSantis actually losing ground for months, especially to Nikki Haley. That's something that has frustrated Brice Musgrove, a 60-year-old who works in insurance.

BRICE MUSGROVE: I thought, you know, if people see what kind of what I saw in him, kind of a good follow-up to Trump, then I expected him to just launch. And for whatever reason, it just felt like it just never gained traction.

GONYEA: Still, Musgrove hopes Iowa can be the start of a rebound for DeSantis. Michael Bahrt is 43 and works in human resources. He's been supporting DeSantis for months.

MICHAEL BAHRT: Every single event that I've been to, every debate, every town hall, everything I have seen from him has only cemented my commitment to caucus for him.

GONYEA: Bahrt questions Trump's conservative credentials, and if Trump is the nominee, he's not sure what he'll do. It's not unusual to hear Republican criticism of Trump at events for other presidential hopefuls, but poll after poll shows the former president safely in the lead in Iowa. That's even though he does fewer events in the state. On this day, his son, Donald Trump Jr, made a stop at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale.

DONALD TRUMP JR: How's it going?

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: The younger Trump warned his father's supporters that they can't get complacent.

TRUMP: You know, they're trying to get you to have that apathy. They're trying to get you to sort of - Donald Trump is winning by 7462 points. You should stay home.

GONYEA: The room was small but packed. Seated at a table in the center where Lynne Mona, who's semi-retired, and Dawn Veenschoten, who runs an embroidery business. Both are big Trump fans. Both see the many legal troubles Trump is facing as politically motivated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A lot of it's just - to me, it's made up. It's brought on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's not proving - there's not the facts there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And they're just trying to attack him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Trying to make him look bad, and - but it's actually doing reverse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Trying to find something against him.

GONYEA: Watching nearby is Gary Leffler. He's wearing a white Trump ball cap signed by the former president himself.

So it says up here...

GARY LEFFLER: Trump caucus captain - so I'll be speaking on behalf of the president.

GONYEA: White hat, gold lettering...

LEFFLER: Trump's gold, right? He's the gold standard.

GONYEA: And those polls that show Donald Trump way ahead - Leffler says, believe them.

LEFFLER: The people are just really more energized than I've ever seen them. And I was there in '16 and '20, and they are more organized. They are more dedicated. They're more enthused.

GONYEA: Monday night's forecast, with brutally cold temperatures, will put such enthusiasm to the test for frontrunners and underdogs alike.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. 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.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.