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Christie drops out, 2 GOP presidential hopefuls debate as Iowa caucuses near

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chris Christie is the latest Republican to drop out of the presidential race. The former New Jersey governor left days before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. A couple of other Republicans remain, trying to be the top alternative to former President Trump, and they were in Iowa last night for a CNN debate. Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters heard it all in person. He's in Des Moines. Clay, hi.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, Chris Christie's out. How does that change things?

MASTERS: I mean, it changes things next to nothing in Iowa. Christie hasn't set foot in the state since he announced his presidential bid. He was betting it all on New Hampshire and was polling in just the single digits here in Iowa. Donald Trump continues to be the front-runner in Iowa, and Christie was running as the sharpest critic to the former president. And, you know, Trump has a lot of support from Iowa Republicans, so those that are left trying to be that Trump alternative are having to walk this tightrope of not really calling him out too much because they want to pull away some of his support. And last night we finally got to see the two more viable Trump-alternative Republicans on a debate stage by themselves at Drake University in Iowa.

INSKEEP: And I'm just trying to think this through, Clay. Christie had no effect in Iowa. He did have some support in New Hampshire, so there's a question of who might get that support, and also a question about whether Trump's remaining rivals are running for president or for vice president. But in any case, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis on the same stage - what was it like?

MASTERS: Well, the two finally got to say the attacks they've been saying about the other one out on the campaign trail in front of each other. Haley and DeSantis agreed Trump should be on the stage with them. In fact, he was actually just a few miles away from the debate in Des Moines doing a Fox News town hall, his normal kind of counterprogramming or trolling or whatever you want to call it. But it was a chance to see Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis without the other candidates who have been on the debate stage in the past. They were asked about immigration and the economy, abortion by the moderators, but it was all overshadowed by the two attacking each other and accusing the other one of lying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: But every time he lies, Drake University, don't turn this into a drinking game because you will be overserved by the end of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: If she says she's never said something, that definitely means she said it, and then she'll say, you're lying. You're lying. That means not only did she say it, but she's on videotape saying it.

MASTERS: So there was a lot of that. But there were also some jabs at Trump during the debate. But, you know, the former president walked away victorious by not even showing up, right? I mean, look, Trump is running like an incumbent, not to be bothered by being on a debate stage with these two. He can have a town hall like he did last night where he sets the tone and gets asked about Chris Christie dropping out, giving him a chance to once again say he's not threatened by any of his Republican rivals. But, you know, he's clearly feeling somewhat of a threat in New Hampshire, for sure, 'cause he's pivoted to attacking Nikki Haley in recent days, even posting an article on social media falsely questioning her eligibility to become president...

INSKEEP: Wow.

MASTERS: ...As the child of two immigrants.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah, obviously is qualified.

MASTERS: Right.

INSKEEP: What are you watching as the caucuses arrive next week?

MASTERS: Right. I'll be watching the skies and the temperatures. How about that? Some parts of Iowa received over a foot of snow earlier this week. Meteorologists expect another big snow event tonight, dumping even more on the state. In past caucus cycles, it's not uncommon to meet Iowans who are finally starting to go out and take in their opinions for caucus night at the last minute, so it might be hard for folks, no matter how hardy they think they are, to get out there and do that. And there was - on top of all this, it's going to be incredibly cold on caucus night. The forecasted low in Des Moines on caucus night - 20 degrees below zero. And that's before you factor in the wind chill, so there are some obvious questions about what that could do for the coldest Iowa caucus night ever, and what impact that could have on turnout.

INSKEEP: Dude, have you got a good coat?

MASTERS: (Laughter) Yeah, packed many layers. That's right.

INSKEEP: Twenty below zero. Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters in Iowa, thanks so much.

MASTERS: Yeah. Thanks, Steve. 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.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.