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Haley vows to stay in the race, regardless of what happens in South Carolina primary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nikki Haley is not quitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Perhaps a few of you in the media came here today to see if I'm dropping out of the race. Well, I'm not.

(APPLAUSE)

KELLY: That is Haley speaking today in Greenville, S.C., a state she once led as governor. This weekend Republican voters will cast their votes in the state's primary, and Haley is way behind former President Trump in polls. Well, let's bring in Matt Moore, former chair of South Carolina state GOP. He worked on a super PAC for Senator Tim Scott's run for the Republican nomination. Welcome.

MATT MOORE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What was going through your mind today as you listened to Haley swearing she is going to fight on?

MOORE: Well, Nikki Haley struck a very, very defiant tone today. She pledged to stay in the race until some undetermined time down the road, maybe even when Donald Trump secures a majority of convention delegates. I did think the speech was very vintage Nikki Haley. She relishes being the underdog. But - it's a big but - she's never really faced a force like Donald Trump, not only in terms of his seemingly unmovable base but, let's just say, the unique way in which he attacks his opponents. So we'll see where it goes from here.

KELLY: Do you see any chance that she could pull off a come-from-behind victory this weekend?

MOORE: Well, she needs Democrats and independents to show up in South Carolina's primary. That really has never happened in the past. There's not a good case study to point to hundreds of thousands of independents sort of showing up in GOP primaries here. So it's an uphill battle.

KELLY: Yeah. How do you explain why it's such an uphill battle? Just to point out again, she - this is her state. She was a popular two-term governor not that long ago.

MOORE: Well, this Republican Party is far different than the party even 10 years ago, when she was governor, and last time she was on the ballot was 2014. Two things - one, the party's base is far more concerned about domestic issues than getting tangled up in foreign affairs. And they see - two, they see Trump as the best person to lead this modern party that's very much domestic issue-focused and its trench warfare against the cultural left. As I said, the polls we see, they show Donald Trump is the most trusted person by voters on those issues.

KELLY: As you talk to people in South Carolina, do they sound conflicted? I mean, this is Nikki Haley. They know her. They know her policies. They know her family. This is the classic hometown girl who's made it big.

MOORE: Well, interestingly, I would say Nikki Haley ran a very good textbook campaign for usual political times. But these are not the usual political times. Trump brings out what we call low-propensity Republican voters. It's astounding. In the 2020 election cycle, he turned out about 20% more Republicans than expected. It's possible that happens again in November. But you're right. It's hard to understand unless you live here and kind of see why people might have a different choice than a former governor. There's not much of a home field advantage at this point for Ambassador Haley. And there wasn't for my former candidate, Tim Scott.

KELLY: Indeed.

MOORE: Indeed. Trump ran as the de facto incumbent, which I think she mentioned today, but - may be sort of a badge of honor in the way that, you know, his team used the levers of power to really avoid a protracted, bruising political fight in this primary season.

KELLY: I mean, to one of the points that Nikki Haley made again today, we do not anoint kings in this country. Americans deserve a choice. What do you say to that?

MOORE: Well, they've had plenty of choices. There were six or eight when we started this process back last summer, again, when I was with Tim Scott. And we're down to two now. You know, and the primaries will continue as we get further towards the road to Milwaukee and the convention this summer and potentially as Trump picks a vice president. But that may be - that line, it didn't sit well with me. We've had a fairly competitive primary season. She just happens to be the one left remaining.

KELLY: Yeah. And just quickly - implications for beyond 2024, with Trump reshaping politics so profoundly, it sounds like, in your state.

MOORE: Yeah. As I said, Democrats should be worried this fall. I think it's easy to see a scenario where Trump wins the key swing states and returns to the White House. You know, Trump's campaign rightly sees this primary season as a distraction from unifying the party. And when you deep dive into the numbers, Republicans need to improve their standing in key areas. And Nikki Haley stands in the way of Trump doing that. So he wants to get this over as soon as possible.

KELLY: Matt Moore. He chaired the South Carolina GOP from 2013 to 2017. Thank you.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fox
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.