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Nikki Haley came in 3rd in the Iowa caucuses. What are her next steps?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With the Iowa caucuses in the rearview mirror, third place finisher Nikki Haley still says the country wants a change, and she hopes to be that change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: You know what I'm talking about.

(CHEERING)

HALEY: It's both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yep, yep, yep.

HALEY: They have more in common than you think.

(CHEERING)

HALEY: Seventy percent of Americans don't want another Trump-Biden rematch.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: The former South Carolina governor was edged out of second place by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in Iowa. But as you have probably heard by now, Trump won the contest with just over 50% of the vote. Kirsten Kukowski is an adviser to Nikki Haley's super PAC, and we called her for her take on last night's results. Good morning.

KIRSTEN KUKOWSKI: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So, realistically, what is Nikki Haley's path now? Here's why I say that - the primary process is very front-loaded and increasingly, winner-take-all or winner-take-most, talking about the delegates here. So realistically, how does Nikki Haley not hit a wall pretty soon?

KUKOWSKI: Well, I would say, honestly, what happened last night was what we had been told was going to happen for months. So I don't know that anything really changed last night. I think if you had said that Nikki Haley was going to essentially tie Ron DeSantis, you know, a couple months or even a couple of weeks ago, I think people would have laughed. So I think Nikki is in a good spot. I think that she, as always, was planning to go to New Hampshire, which is a different state than Iowa, for your listeners. New Hampshire voters are much different than Iowa voters, and they are much more likely to support a Nikki Haley candidacy. So her numbers in New Hampshire have been really very strong. And she's been closing that gap with Donald Trump. New Hampshire once was a state that really carried and nudged Donald Trump over the cliff in 2016. But this year it is much different. And so our path is, you know, hard pivot right now to New Hampshire. And then obviously, she was governor of South Carolina. So that is the next state. And then there's Michigan and then a flurry of states on Super Tuesday.

MARTIN: OK.

KUKOWSKI: So I think it actually looks pretty good for Nikki.

MARTIN: All right. So let's jump ahead to Super Tuesday, more than a month away. Ron DeSantis already headed for South Carolina this week, but the former president is out-polling Nikki Haley in her own home state. How do you explain that?

KUKOWSKI: Well, he's also an incumbent president, right? This is a little bit of an unprecedented situation that I think we can't gloss over. He's running as an incumbent president. He was already in the White House for four years. He predicted a 60-point win or 60-point margin in Iowa, and he got just over 50. So that means 50% of the GOP is looking for somebody other than Donald Trump. And that means that if you - you know, if - he really has some questions that he needs to answer in the GOP, if more than - if half of the party is still not with him.

MARTIN: OK, OK.

KUKOWSKI: And he's got plenty of time to convince them (laughter).

MARTIN: I understand that. But then you've got - OK, so then you've got 16 other states and territories at stake...

KUKOWSKI: Yup.

MARTIN: ...On Super Tuesday. How does she manage that? I mean, she did a big spend in Iowa and New Hampshire. I take your point on the appeal to what she sees at the independent voters in New Hampshire. But then after that, it would seem to me moving solidly into Trump territory, particularly in the South - so how does that help her?

KUKOWSKI: Well, I don't know about that so much. You have a lot of different states - you see several states in the Midwest, Michigan being one of them - right? - before Super Tuesday. You also have states like Minnesota, California. So you do have some Southern states, but you also have some Midwestern and Western states that are going to pop up here. So I do think that, you know, a strong finish in New Hampshire, which is what the focus is for the next week, and then obviously for an entire month, all we'll be doing is talking about South Carolina.

MARTIN: OK.

KUKOWSKI: So get ready. But I think...

MARTIN: I do have to clarify that President Trump is not an incumbent. I just have to be really clear about that. I think most people know that. I'm sure that's...

KUKOWSKI: Understood, understood. He's acting as an incumbent. So - but I take your point.

MARTIN: He's acting as incumbent. You think he has incumbent advantages. OK, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Tamara Keith, who's here to talk about this. I still want to go sort of talk about the kind of how the process works against Haley at this point, or at least it advantages the former president.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Right. There are so many states that because it is Donald Trump's party - because he is functioning like an incumbent even though he is not an incumbent, there are so many state GOPs that have changed the rules or otherwise. The rules are winner-take-all, or get 51% and you're winner-take-all. And another challenge for Haley is that she has been making a case about electability, which is an important part of her case - that when it comes to the general election, she has a much better chance against Joe Biden, according to pretty much all polls, than former President Trump. However, in the Iowa caucuses, as voters were going in, they were making their choices, it was very clear that voters in Iowa, at least, who cared a lot about electability, chose Trump. They didn't choose her.

MARTIN: So, Kirsten Kukowski, if you're still with us, how do you answer that?

KUKOWSKI: Well, I answer that as Iowa's a lot different than New Hampshire, than is South Carolina, than is all the states I'm looking at in front of me that are Super Tuesday. Colorado, you know, Minnesota, North Carolina - these are states that I don't know that it is as cut and dry. And I think that in some ways this is just beginning. Like I said at the top of this interview, what happened last night was what was supposed to happen for months. We have been waking up for, you know, all of this, all of last year, 2023, being told that Donald Trump was the runaway winner. He got just over 50% of the GOP, which means, again, almost 50% of the GOP is not sold on him.

MARTIN: Okay, before we let you go, she came...

KUKOWSKI: Iowa is about as Trumpy (ph) of a state you can get. And so I think I would just push back on the rest of the calendar looks a lot different than the Iowa electorate.

MARTIN: OK, before we let you go, she said last night - Nikki Haley said last night that Iowa made the GOP primary contest a two-person race. She came in third. So how is this a two-person race?

KUKOWSKI: Again, if people had told me even two weeks ago that Nikki Haley would have tied Ron DeSantis in Iowa, which is where he spent all of his money and all of his time, I think people would have laughed me out of the...

MARTIN: All right. That's Kirsten...

KUKOWSKI: So thank you for a great spot.

MARTIN: All right, that's Kirsten Kukowski. She's an adviser to Nikki Haley's super PAC. And we were also joined by White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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