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The GOP is preparing its first primary contest

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Iowa caucuses are just four days away, and the candidate pool is smaller than it was yesterday now that Chris Christie has dropped out of the race. The remaining presidential hopefuls are making their final Iowa pitches. And NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is here to tell us about it. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You were just in Iowa. What did you see?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, there's the usual pre-caucus excitement there. It feels like an Iowa caucus. There are events in all sorts of bars and restaurants, and those restaurants are full of crowds. But the best way to put it - how it feels is that the vibes are kind of off. It's - like, you just have former President Trump kind of hanging over everything. Everyone knows he's popular, and everyone knows he's polling far ahead. The other candidates bring him up. Their voters bring him up. And as to his polling lead, I've asked a lot of other voters, supporters of other candidates, what they think about that. And they say, you know, I don't trust polls. Maybe the polls are wrong. And maybe that's true. But also, for all of the polls to be off by this much...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...In the same direction would be truly unheard of. But there is also some dread in the air, and that's just because of weather. On Monday, on caucus day, last I checked, there's a high of negative-2 degrees Fahrenheit in Des Moines. Naturally, that might make people want to stay home, and who knows how that will affect the outcome?

SHAPIRO: Well, last night the three main Republican candidates were in Iowa and on TV. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Ambassador Nikki Haley debated on CNN, while Donald Trump did a town hall in Des Moines that aired on Fox. Let's start with the debate. Any highlights?

KURTZLEBEN: They attacked each other a lot. That was the real throughline. And furthermore, they didn't attack Trump much. And that has also kind of been their MO lately. All of this has become normal for them. And you can look at that strategy a couple of ways. One is to ask, why not attack the guy that's on top? After all, Trump has weak spots. He has, you know, four indictments. Plus, a lot of Republican voters, even if they like his policies, will just say they flat-out don't like him. But on the other hand, it really does make some sense for Haley and DeSantis to hold off on their attacks. There's a lot of Trump voters who have just been locked in for months or years. You're not going to shake them away. And furthermore, this is just the party of Trump now. If you attack Trump, you might not win anyone new. So these two are just competing to be the non-Trump.

SHAPIRO: We're going to hear in another part of the program about closing arguments in Trump's civil trial, where he made some remarks. But tell us about his remarks at the town hall last night on Fox. Any news there?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, not a lot. It was a pretty standard Trump event. There was a lot of bragging. There was not a lot of clarity on policy. Now, moderators did press him on some of his more controversial statements. They asked him how much he would focus on retribution as president because, as he has said to his crowds, I am your retribution. Now, at another point, he talked about a line that has worried some of his opponents. He has said a couple of times now that he would want to act as, quote, "dictator for one day" on two issues - immigration and drilling for oil. Now, last night he said the media is being unfair to him on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: So I said, I'm going to be a dictator for one day. They cut it. They go, I'm going to be a dictator. But they cut the rest of the sentence. No, no. I am not going to be a dictator.

KURTZLEBEN: This is just really an opportunity to step back 'cause this is where we are with Trump. We're discussing to what degree he will or will not act as a dictator and for how...

SHAPIRO: And for how many days.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. And we're asking what kind of political retribution he might carry out. These are standard Trump lines by now, but this is not standard on a campaign trail or in our democracy.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about whether New Jersey former Governor Chris Christie dropping out of the race could affect things 'cause he was such an anti-Trump candidate. What does it look like?

KURTZLEBEN: The short version is in Iowa, it won't affect things much. Christie, according to the Des Moines Register, hadn't done any events in Iowa, so he has very little support there. He's anti-Trump. Nikki Haley is - has a lot of anti-Trump supporters. The voters might go there. In New Hampshire, however, he was doing better. That might give Haley a boost there.

SHAPIRO: Could make more of a difference.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "FIRE IN THE SKY") 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.

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.