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What to know before Nikki Haley and Donald Trump face off in South Carolina's primary

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow, South Carolina will hold its Republican presidential nominating contest, pitting the state's former governor, Nikki Haley, against the former president, Donald Trump. NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben is on the campaign trail with Trump in Rock Hill, S.C., and she joins us now. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

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CHANG: I hear that you are at a Trump rally right now as we speak, so let's start with Trump. What is the closing message that Trump is sending right now?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. Well, he is, as per usual, on the attack, but he really has been, if it's possible, even more so than usual here. In other speeches, we've seen him attacking Nikki Haley quite hard for having said, for example, that she wants to raise the Social Security retirement age, which is a big deal here in South Carolina 'cause there are just a lot of retirees here.

CHANG: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: There have been some other attacks - personal ones on her husband who's serving overseas. And also in recent days, Trump put out an attack ad as well, which might surprise you, considering that he's well ahead in polls. According to FiveThirtyEight, he is ahead by around 30 points. And he has a lot of support. This rally has about 4,100 people - is what Secret Service told me. But he really seems to be trying to put an exclamation point on his candidacy - to be able to say that his victory here was decisive.

CHANG: Well, what about Haley? I mean, if she's so far behind, what is her message at this point?

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KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, to my view, there are three real strands of her message right now. One, she's pushing the age message hard, saying that Trump and Biden are both too old. She really lumps them together. She also has a line calling Congress the most privileged nursing home in the country. And that, in her stump speech, gets some real laughs from her crowd.

Her second - the second part of her message is that Trump equals chaos - that the world right now is messy, dangerous - and that when Trump does things like making those NATO comments he recently did, that he's making the world more chaotic and therefore that he's just not the right guy for the job right now.

And the third is electability. She says that the numbers aren't there for MAGA. This is relatively new, from what I've heard in her speeches. She was arguing last night that MAGA just can't grow much bigger - that it wants to exclude people like her. She says that she has the bigger tent. Now, whether that's true is arguable. I mean, on the one hand, I talk to a lot of Trump voters. A lot don't like her, wouldn't want to vote for her. On the other hand, when you go to her rallies, it is pretty easy to find independents. She does have some broad ideological appeal.

CHANG: OK, so it sounds like there is this divide in the Republican Party between the Trump wing and, I guess, a more establishment, Haley wing. If Haley is not the nominee, I mean, would her voters vote for Trump, you think?

KURTZLEBEN: Listen, a lot would. I mean, partisan alignment in this country is so strong. It's hard to overstate how strong it is. So Republicans just tend to vote for Republicans, whether it's Trump or Haley. But when I've asked her voters here whether they would vote for Trump, I've gotten a mix of responses. Some say, yeah, Trump's OK. I just like Haley better, but of course I'd vote for him. But some say they either wouldn't vote for Trump or they don't like, at the very least, the idea of a Trump-Biden rematch. They don't love Trump. Now, one voter I talked to is Nick Cicero. He's, in fact, a Haley supporter from Pittsburgh, but they vote pretty soon. He's planning to vote there in their primary for Haley. He came out to see her in Myrtle Beach last night. Here's what he said.

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NICK CICERO: Well, our friends are moderate, and they don't want either one of the two of them. And what's going to happen is if there's not a good third choice, they're not going to vote.

KURTZLEBEN: So that is very much Haley's argument as well. So we'll see what happens if Trump is the nominee, which looks very likely right now. But for Haley's part, she says she is moving on no matter what happens in South Carolina, then slowly heading to Michigan for its primary and then on to Super Tuesday.

CHANG: That is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you so much, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course, Ailsa.

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.