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How DeSantis, Trump and Haley are doing ahead of tonight's caucuses in Iowa

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Republicans in Iowa hold their first-in-the-nation caucuses this evening, kicking off voting in the presidential primary. Former President Donald Trump has maintained a steady polling lead in Iowa, and he is hoping for a big win there tonight. We begin our coverage with Clay Masters, who's reported on many of these caucuses and is now with Minnesota Public Radio. Hi, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hello.

SUMMERS: So, Clay, before we get into the candidates and the politics of all of this, you got to give us a weather report. We are hearing that it is absolutely freezing there in Iowa, and I have to assume that could have some impact on the caucuses tonight, right?

MASTERS: Yeah, it'll have an impact, but not really sure how yet. These Republican events are in person, remember. They begin at 7 p.m. local time. So people need to, you know, leave their warm homes or wherever and gather at some 1,600 precincts across the state. At caucus time, temperatures will be around minus 4 in Des Moines with windchill much colder. And that's really dangerous conditions to be out in. Roads won't be great, especially in rural counties where it's further distance to travel than, say, Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the larger metros. And so it may affect turnout, but it's unclear which candidate that might really benefit from the weather like this.

SUMMERS: Yeah. Well, hoping everybody stays safe. Clay, let's turn now to the candidates. I know that you're going to be with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tonight. Tell us how the Florida governor sees this evening going.

MASTERS: Well, DeSantis has a lot riding on the results here, perhaps more than anyone else. He's invested a lot of time and a lot of energy here in Iowa, visiting all of the state's 99 counties - endorsements from Governor Kim Reynolds, which is pretty unprecedented for a sitting governor to endorse, and Bob Vander Plaats, who's a evangelical leader in the state who always becomes kind of the topic of conversation around caucuses because of his endorsements. So we'll see if all that investment pays dividends tonight. But the fact is, he's still in a battle for second place, if polls are accurate. And finishing well behind Trump and maybe even Nikki Haley would raise some pretty serious questions about his path forward.

I've been following him in recent days. And he said, you know, don't believe the polls. This is how you win, by doing the strategy he has done. I was at the headquarters for his Never Back Down PAC, which has done a lot of the campaigning for him on his behalf a couple days ago. And it was full of volunteers who had come up from Florida. They were here to help out in the final days. So he's got a lot of organization and investment in the state.

SUMMERS: OK, so that's DeSantis. But what about the other leading candidates, former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley?

MASTERS: Yeah. As you said, Juana, Trump is the clear front-runner based on polling. So he and his surrogates have been urging people, you know, not to get complacent. Trump often brings out some newer voters, so that's perhaps part of the thinking. But many Trump supporters are very committed to him and getting out regardless of the weather. It's clear Trump would like to win by double digits tonight so that he can just truly pivot to just focusing on the general election. And you mentioned Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, as well. She's hoping to get in his way here - not even necessarily win, but cut into that lead substantially and propel her to states that may be more favorable, like New Hampshire next week, and then to her home state of South Carolina.

And I should mention, too, you still have Vivek Ramaswamy, who this morning is saying he's going to win the Iowa caucuses. He's done the full Grassley twice. The full Grassley is a reference to hitting every one of Iowa's 99 counties, and he did it twice. But he's pulling a distant fourth most of this caucus cycle. So we'll see if those traditional campaign strategies have the same impact here in 2024.

SUMMERS: And, Clay, we haven't mentioned Democrats at all here, and that's purposeful. Remind folks why that is.

MASTERS: President Joe Biden is the incumbent, of course, with lesser-known challengers. But Iowa Democrats also moved away from caucuses after tech issues marred their contest four years ago. So the DNC has moved on from Iowa being first in the nation. South Carolina is. So here in Iowa, Democrats are doing a mail voting contest that will conclude on March 5. That's Super Tuesday. So that's when we'll know the results of the Democratic caucuses here, and that's really cleared the focus for Republicans and, of course, Donald Trump.

SUMMERS: Clay Masters from Minnesota Public Radio reporting from Iowa. Clay, thank you.

MASTERS: My pleasure. 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.

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.