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On South Carolina primary day, either Haley or Trump losing the state will be a first

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's Republican primary day in South Carolina. Both former President Donald Trump and the state's former governor, Nikki Haley, have never lost an election in South Carolina. That will change today for one of them. NPR's Stephen Fowler is in Columbia, S.C. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Donald Trump's appearance last night at a rally in Rock Hill, S.C. He's at the CPAC conference today. Last night, what was the Trump message to voters?

FOWLER: Well, Scott, it was typical Trump fare. You had attacks on President Joe Biden and Democrats, recapping achievements during his first term in office and previewing what he'd do if he's elected again. That includes things like mass deportations and a push for more tax cuts. But what's been notable recently on the campaign trail is this dire tone both Trump and his supporters have painted about this election and what would happen if he didn't return to the White House, like this comment about the economy if he loses on Election Day, which is November 5.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: If we have a tragedy happen on November 5, it would be a tragedy in the opinion of many. And in my opinion, you will have the largest stock market crash we've ever had because a lot of the stock market - 'cause the only thing that's doing well is the stock market, and it's doing well because the polls are all showing that we're winning by a lot.

FOWLER: I mean, there's many reasons Trump is doing so well in the GOP primary, but this vibe of him losing as an existential threat to the future of America is becoming a dominant part of his messaging.

SIMON: Of course, Nikki Haley was then-President Trump's U.N. ambassador - before that, South Carolina's governor. But the polling today for her is not encouraging. If she loses her home state, could that be the end of her presidential campaign?

FOWLER: Well, not according to Haley, who said in a state-of-the-race briefing this week that it's going to keep the lights on for a few more weeks, no matter today's outcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: I'll keep fighting until the American people close the door. That day is not today, and it won't be on Saturday, not by a long shot. The presidential primaries have barely begun.

FOWLER: I mean, Haley's main argument is that Trump and President Joe Biden are too old and the country needs a younger, more competent leader. Pointing to the 91 criminal charges against Trump, Haley also says he's the chaos candidate that may excite the Republican base but hurts the party in races where it counts. The thing is, though, that's really the only daylight between Trump and Haley. They have largely the same policies and stances, and she was even part of his administration - like you mentioned, the United Nations ambassador. And as you heard her say, her argument is that the race isn't over yet because only a small handful of states have voted.

SIMON: Stephen, what have voters been telling you there in South Carolina?

FOWLER: Well, a lot of people that I talked to say that they are supporting Donald Trump. It's reflective of the polling. It's reflective of the reality that Trump is basically a de facto incumbent running again. People had mixed things to say about Nikki Haley. Even though she is the state's governor - was the state's governor, a lot of people say that that didn't necessarily matter to them, one, because there were a lot of people that have moved into South Carolina, retirees that have come, that like President Trump and that haven't really experienced Nikki Haley's time as governor, so it doesn't matter as much to them. And, two, there is this sense of urgency around this campaign, and that's what Donald Trump is saying, and that's what these voters are saying, that, really, his time is now. Nikki Haley's time is in the future. But even then, you know, many Haley supporters that I've talked to say that they'll probably still end up voting for Trump if and when he's the nominee.

SIMON: If Donald Trump wins today's primary, Nikki Haley, of course, says she'll stay in the race. What's the next installment?

FOWLER: Well, for the Trump campaign, it's pretty simple and straightforward. He's winning. He plans to keep winning and is ready to fully pivot to the general election matchup against President Joe Biden. For the Haley campaign, it is a little bit different. They said they're making a multimillion-dollar ad buy heading into Super Tuesday, where more than a dozen states have primary contests in two weeks. They've acknowledged it's an uphill battle, but there's a few factors at play. One, Haley has the money to keep going past South Carolina, where other challengers had their resources dry up. Two, Haley's still winning a meaningful share of the primary votes, even if it's not translating to winning the actual delegates needed to get the nomination. I mean, Trump's only getting 50 to 60% of the vote. Finally, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Nikki Haley won't win the GOP primary in South Carolina or the primary's nomination, but her argument is more about what's coming in November, namely she says Trump can't win a general election.

SIMON: NPR's Steven Fowler on the job for us and on the scene in Columbia, S.C. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

FOWLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.