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State GOP Chair: South Carolina Primary 'Feels Very Wide Open'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken, it's South Carolina's turn. That state holds its Republican primary a week from Saturday. The Democratic primary is the Saturday after that. In South Carolina, candidates will face a very different electorate than they've seen so far in this race. Joining us to talk about also how South Carolina could change the Republican race is the state GOP chair, Matt Moore. He joins us via Skype. Welcome to the show.

MATT MOORE: Good to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: When you turn on the TV in South Carolina these days, how many political ads are you seeing? Are we at full saturation yet?

MOORE: It feels like full saturation. And, of course, I'm excited about it. It's a good thing for South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: Are you seeing one candidate in particular blanket the airwaves these days?

MOORE: I'm seeing a lot of Right to Rise ads, a lot of Marco Rubio ads.

SHAPIRO: Right to Rise is Jeb Bush's super PAC.

MOORE: That's right. Seeing some Trump ads, some Cruz ads - a lot of ads.

SHAPIRO: No Kasich ads, it sounds like, and he came in second last night in New Hampshire.

MOORE: Yeah, kudos to his campaign. They ran a very good New Hampshire campaign. South Carolina feels very wide open right now. Voters have some very different ideas, as we saw last night, on the party's future. We might sort that out here in South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: You say it feels wide open, but Donald Trump has led every poll since July.

MOORE: He has. Ted Cruz is, of course, right on his heels here in South Carolina. Of course Rubio and Bush are battling it out here. And people forget Ben Carson. Ben Carson has been very, very active here in South Carolina for a couple years now. I don't count anyone out at this point.

SHAPIRO: What do you think is so appealing to South Carolinians about Donald Trump?

MOORE: Well, throughout history, South Carolina has shown a popular streak, from John C. Calhoun to Strom Thurmond to recent history, Newt Gingrich in 2012. There's great appeal in a person who comes along and can speak really strongly about issues. And so Donald Trump has tapped into that and anger at the political class and anger at a system - anger at a system that does not seem to be benefiting enough people. And he might ride that to victory in South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: You have spoken out against Donald Trump's proposals, specifically his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. On this program, you called that plan a setback for the country. What is your message to the frontrunner as Donald Trump comes to South Carolina?

MOORE: Look, I don't think it's reasonable to agree with every candidate every single minute of every single day. I spoke out in that case. I think I can appreciate, though, the fact that he's bringing out record crowds. We'll need those people to defeat Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders now, maybe. So I'll leave it to the voters to sort out in the next ten days here in South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: Could you see yourself supporting Trump as a candidate, particularly after South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley delivered that really strong response to the State of the Union address calling out Trump for some of his policies?

MOORE: The party will support whomever the nominee happens to be. I think there's a long way to go. People forget that Mitt Romney didn't win the nomination last time around until April 24. So we're now in a 10 to 12 - maybe even longer - week period to determine the nominee. We'll support the nominee.

SHAPIRO: Mitt Romney also didn't win South Carolina in 2012. Newt Gingrich took that state. Do you think South Carolina is likely to pick a nominee this time, or are they likely to muddy the contest even further?

MOORE: Well, New Hampshire muddied it up last night a lot, right? So I'm not sure we'll get full clarity for a while. I do think South Carolina will play its traditional role of being a tough test for campaigns. A lot of different geographic areas, a lot of different types of voters here - social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, national-security-focused voters. It's a very diverse electorate in South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: When you still have so many Republicans in the race and, as you describe it, so many different types of voters in South Carolina, it sounds like we might be looking at a very fragmented result once again.

MOORE: That seems very possible. I think a lot depends on what happens at the debate the Saturday night. Of course, as we saw last weekend, the debates can really change the momentum in one way or the other in an instant. And people in South Carolina watch debates. I can promise you that.

SHAPIRO: If we had done this interview with you 24 hours ago, we would be talking about a very different Republican race. What is the biggest surprise to you about where things stand right now?

MOORE: It's that we have so many candidates who have a shot. It's very surprising that this race could potentially go on now for 10 to 15 to 16 to 18, 20 weeks, maybe even all the way to the conventions. But certainly we have some determining to do going forward in the party about where we're headed as a party.

SHAPIRO: Do you wish that the Republican Party would hurry up and do that determining, or are you happy to see the fight drag on?

MOORE: Well, look, the Democrats are nowhere near determining either. I think, all in all, people are excited about the party. They're looking at us - 20 to 25 million viewers at each debate. That's a good thing to me.

SHAPIRO: Matt Moore is the state GOP chair for South Carolina. Republicans there vote on February 20. Thanks for joining us.

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

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