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A strong showing for Haley on Super Tuesday could reveal Trump's biggest weak spots

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump is expected to take a giant leap toward securing the GOP nomination today when 15 states plus American Samoa, a U.S. territory, hold their Republican primary contests. Trump has swept all the GOP nominating contests so far, except for the District of Columbia, where former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley scored her first win. Still, Haley has been doing well enough to raise questions about whether Trump has vulnerabilities come November. NPR's Franco Ordoñez has this report.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: Nikki Haley didn't win in South Carolina, but she did have enough support to point out something Republicans have to reckon with in this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: I'm an accountant. I know 40% is not 50%.

(LAUGHTER)

HALEY: But I also know 40% is not some tiny group.

(CHEERING)

ORDOÑEZ: It's not a tiny group, especially when considering she's running against a quasi-incumbent. And it's roughly the same percentage who voted for her in New Hampshire and also in Michigan, exposing a substantial weakness for former President Donald Trump that could have implications for him in November.

NICK CISERO: I'm a little disturbed at the direction we're headed with the two candidates we have.

ORDOÑEZ: Nick Cisero (ph) calls himself a moderate Republican. He's from Pennsylvania but is in South Carolina for the winter, where he attended a Haley rally. He told my NPR colleague, Danielle Kurtzleben, that he likes Haley. And he's unsure how he'll vote if and/or when it turns into a two-person race between Trump and President Biden.

CISERO: That's what's going to happen is the moderate Republicans and Democrats aren't going to vote for either one of the two of them.

ORDOÑEZ: Voters like Cisero may reluctantly vote for Trump, stay home or may even cross over and vote for Biden. Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research, says Super Tuesday is a good chance to take stock of how big of a pool that group is.

JON MCHENRY: I'm going to be watching Virginia probably first and foremost.

ORDOÑEZ: He's specifically going to be watching the suburbs of Fairfax and Loudoun County outside of Washington, D.C. These are two large, high-income counties with a wide swath of college-educated voters where McHenry sees the potential for a, quote, "protest vote."

MCHENRY: Especially in those higher-educated counties, if they are voting for Nikki Haley, I think that's a sign that, looking ahead to the general election in the fall, it's an indicator of potential trouble for Donald Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: Of course, if Trump does well with those voters, it could bode poorly for Biden. And in true Trump fashion, he's not worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: They're going to all vote for me again, everybody. And I'm not sure we need too many.

ORDOÑEZ: Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman, says what will be more important in this year's election will be who can turn out their base.

HOGAN GIDLEY: So many in the Republican base are dying to go vote for him again. They would crawl across broken glass to vote for Donald Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: Polls show Trump will win back many of these Haley voters. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina, has been analyzing exit polls, though, and found that most of the Haley supporters oppose Trump on two specific points, that Trump would not be fit to be president if convicted of a crime and that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.

MICHAEL BITZER: These questions might be tapping into some hesitancy, some concerns about Trump's candidacy.

ORDOÑEZ: And Bitzer says even if half of those voters defected to Biden or just didn't show up, that could mean the difference of who wins or loses in November.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. 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.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.