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DeSantis campaigns hard in Iowa. Will it pay off in next month's GOP caucuses?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ron DeSantis is betting big on Iowa. A win in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses next month would give the Florida governor's presidential campaign a seriously needed boost. Over the weekend, DeSantis wrapped up his tour of Iowa's 99 counties with a rally in Jasper County.

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RON DESANTIS: That should show you that I consider myself a servant, not a ruler.

MARTIN: But DeSantis' focus on the Hawkeye State does not seem to be paying off. Donald Trump still has a strong lead there. Meanwhile, former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is gaining ground and is now virtually tied with DeSantis for second place. Some say following the old playbook of shaking hands in Iowa will not help DeSantis win the Republican nomination, and one of those people is Nathan Gonzales, who is with us now. He is the editor and publisher of the Inside Elections newsletter. Good morning. Thank you for coming by.

NATHAN GONZALES: Yeah. Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, tricky to start with a prediction, but I'm going to do it. At this point, does DeSantis have any chance of winning the Iowa caucuses?

GONZALES: Well, we've all learned to give - to rule out ruling things out. And he has a chance. I just don't think it's a particularly good one. DeSantis doing the 99-county tour is good in that he's getting attention, right? We're talking about him. But the fundamentals of the race remain the same, and this is not a race to get - to visit all the counties. It's a race to get the most delegates and to get the most support.

And what we know from this is that now DeSantis has been, over the last six months, to all corners of Iowa, and he is in no better shape and maybe has less support in Iowa than when he started six months ago. And I'm just not convinced that now that he has completed the tour, that suddenly Iowa voters are going to say, OK, now I'm going with Ron DeSantis and just pushing Trump to the side.

MARTIN: Well, this seems to - this is kind of a tradition - right? - for people to kind of plant themselves - you know, in Iowa, they call that the full Grassley, for the, you know, long-serving Senator Charles Grassley to visit all 99 counties. Apparently, he does this every year. But this is not working for DeSantis. Why not?

GONZALES: Because I think things have changed. I think that Trump, back in 2016, showed that you don't have to have the - be the retail - do all of the retail politics that you typically would have had to do. Now, those people who are listening say, well, wait a minute, Ted Cruz won Iowa back in 2016 - they would be absolutely correct. But Ted Cruz won Iowa with 28%. Now, if we - let's say that DeSantis surges all the way to 28% in this race. He would still be losing to President Trump. And so I think that the retail politics is not what it once was.

MARTIN: So the goal here is - first, you got to get the nomination before you can get to the general - OK. So the - then the goal then has to be to present yourself as a viable Trump alternative. Does he - is he doing that?

GONZALES: I think DeSantis missed a great opportunity. He had a great opportunity because of his big reelection win, and coming in, he had the best opportunity of the other non-Trump candidates. But I think he's tried to have it both ways. He's tried to be too Trump or tried to be Trump lite, and that hasn't worked, but be a Trump alternative. And he found himself caught in the middle, and now it's not even clear that enough Republican primary voters want an alternative to Trump, and if they do, then they have someone like Governor or Ambassador Haley who is an alternative as well.

MARTIN: I want to talk about Nikki Haley in just one minute, but before we kind of move beyond DeSantis - if he does manage to pull off an upset win in Iowa, how might this affect his overall chances of winning the GOP nomination?

GONZALES: It would be huge, but it also wouldn't change - I don't think Nikki Haley gets out of the race if DeSantis finishes first. I think then you still have two - at least two candidates moving on into the next early states. So I - it would be a shocker. It would show that Trump has a weakness. It would show that that there is a - maybe the - you know, all the polls are wrong, and we go through that again. But there's going to be still - Trump versus at least two non-Trump candidates, and that would benefit Trump.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the two non-Trump - other non-Trump candidates. Nikki Haley got a lot of attention recently with this big endorsement and the promise of some financial support from the Koch brothers' organization. How does that - affecting things on the ground in Iowa?

GONZALES: Well, you know, DeSantis is going to say, well, he has a list of - you know, whole list of endorsements in Iowa, and those are going to save the day, including from Governor Reynolds. Nikki Haley - you would rather have that money. There is a grassroots kind of support that comes with the Koch endorsement. But I - you know, fundamentally, I think it's still that same - it's that same Trump, non-Trump dynamic. But moving forward, it feels like even though Trump - sorry, that DeSantis and Haley are even in the polls, they feel like two trains moving in different directions. It feels like DeSantis is losing support or not gaining, and Haley is the one who has the momentum.

MARTIN: And the endorsements that DeSantis has gotten - he's gotten some big-name endorsements in Iowa. That's something that we had not mentioned to this point. Bob Vander Plaats, who's a big, you know, evangelical leader - he's been considered kind of a power broker in the past. And the governor - the sitting governor, Kim Reynolds, who I understand, is quite popular in this state. But here, again, that doesn't seem to be helping.

GONZALES: I think it's the lack of power of endorsements in general. I'm just skeptical that there are a large number of voters, in this case in Iowa, who have been on the fence. Like, I don't know what I'm going to do, and, like, OK, now that Governor Reynolds has told me what to do, I'm in. I just don't know - I just don't believe that there are that many people that exist.

MARTIN: And so Nikki Haley - and who's the other possible - who's still there?

GONZALES: I think it's basically a three-person race at this point. I mean, there is Vivek Ramaswamy, who - you know, who had his moment in the sun or moment in the spotlight. You know, he's been making noise in the debates. But I think it's really - when you when you break down the race, it's going to be Trump, DeSantis or Nikki Haley.

MARTIN: Are the candidates in Iowa - or sorry, the voters in Iowa - are they interested? Or is this just kind of a foregone conclusion, and they're just kind of playing things out? I mean, one of the - this is one of the things we always said about Iowa and New Hampshire, which is a whole other, you know, story, particularly on the Democratic side - but that people really kind of appreciated it, took it seriously, made a point of going to these things, etc. Are people interested, still? Or is it a foregone conclusion for most of the voters there, from what you can tell?

GONZALES: I think there's still interest there. And I think the voters in Iowa take it seriously, that they - the first-in-the-nation status. But that doesn't - but we also have to remember that Iowa isn't predictive, right? Let's say DeSantis has this amazing win that - you know, we're not talking about President Ted Cruz or President Rick Santorum or President Mike Huckabee, former caucus winners who didn't even end up winning the nomination, let alone going on to win the presidency. So Iowa's trying to maintain that first-in-the-nation status without - with realizing that they haven't been predictive of success in the future.

MARTIN: That's Nathan Gonzales. He's editor and publisher of Inside Elections newsletter. Nathan, thanks so much for stopping by.

GONZALES: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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