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Voting in New Hampshire could decide if there's a competitive primary going forward

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

First to New Hampshire, where voting is underway as we speak in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Just two candidates remain in the Republican race - former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. And tonight's outcome could decide if there is a competitive primary going forward or if Trump sweeps the field. NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us from Manchester. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So, Tam, let's just start there. Does Nikki Haley have a chance to stop the Trump train?

KEITH: She sure is trying. The Republican primary very rapidly went from a crowded field to this one-on-one race between Trump, who seems to have a lock on at least 50% of the Republican electorate, and Haley, who is running as a chaos-free conservative alternative and trying to appeal to independent voters. Undeclared voters, as they're called in New Hampshire, make up a significant share of the state's voters. And Haley really is counting on them. But she also isn't really predicting a win. Instead, Haley and her campaign are already looking ahead to her home state of South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: We're going to South Carolina. We have put in the ad buy. We're there. This has always been a marathon. It's never been a sprint.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Former President Trump last night said you'll probably drop out today. What's your response to that?

HALEY: I don't do what he tells me to do. I've never done what he tells me to do.

KEITH: And in a memo today, her campaign scolded the press for describing New Hampshire as Haley's last stand and insisted that she is continuing at least through Super Tuesday, arguing that after that, there will be a better sense of where the race stands.

SUMMERS: OK, Tam. So help us understand, then. Just how important is what happens tonight in New Hampshire, where you are, to Haley staying in this race?

KEITH: Well, some real talk - Haley is trailing badly in South Carolina. It's a state that has turned far more MAGA since she was governor. And competing through Super Tuesday requires a well-funded national operation, which she doesn't currently have. I mean, she was and is well-funded for the early states. She and her allied super PACs have spent some $70 million on TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. But at some point, you really have to win and not just finish a strong second.

SUMMERS: You've been out there talking to voters in New Hampshire today. What have you been hearing from them?

KEITH: That they're not the happiest. I will say the Trump voters I spoke to don't have any doubt about their choice. And such is the reality of the Trump base. It is not huge, but it is passionate. And these voters are undeterred by his impeachments and indictments and talk of retribution. And that has really been a trademark of this primary. But here's another trademark. There are a whole lot of voters who wish that there were better options. Either they wish that their favored Republican candidate hadn't dropped out, or they are totally dreading a Trump-Biden rematch. And that describes Dennis Kelly, an independent voter from Manchester.

DENNIS KELLY: There's a lack of choice. The two parties have broken the system, and that's my feeling. You know, I'm 71. I've been voting since my first opportunity to vote, and this is the worst choices that I've seen in my lifetime.

KEITH: As he put it, quote, "we have a choice between a criminal and an old man who is just doing it for ego." He said he cast a vote for Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips, really, as a protest.

SUMMERS: And we should note that there is a Democratic primary of sorts, but things are a bit unusual. Explain.

KEITH: President Biden and the National Democratic Party decided they wanted South Carolina to have the first primary, but New Hampshire has a state law that says it must hold the first-in-the-nation primary. So they moved ahead. But Biden didn't put his name on the ballot in this state, and the delegates won't count. Biden's campaign is keeping an arm's length from all of this. But now the Democratic establishment in the state has pushed forward with a write-in Biden campaign. And then...

SUMMERS: OK.

KEITH: ...There are those candidates like Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips.

SUMMERS: NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith in Manchester. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. 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.