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Nikki Haley fights to prove her conservative credentials as anti-Trump moderates rally to her side

The former governor of South Carolina, once elected in the tea party wave, is pushing back as Trump tries to make an issue out of the voters' backing her over him.
Presidential Candidate Nikki Haley Campaigns In New Hampshire
Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event at the Franklin VFW in Franklin, N.H., on Monday.Mel Musto / Bloomberg via Getty Images

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Hoping to pull off a major upset in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley has spent the last week of her campaign fending off an onslaught of attacks from former President Donald Trump claiming that the former tea party governor isn’t really a Republican.

At Granite State rallies, Trump has repeatedly claimed that Haley would be weak on immigration policy, called her a “globalist fool,” suggested “she’s like a Democrat,” described her supporters as “pro-Biden” and said a vote for Haley “is a vote for Joe Biden.” He’s suggested that Haley is seeking to have Democrats vote on her behalf Tuesday, though only registered Republicans and undeclared voters can cast ballots in New Hampshire's GOP primary. 

Trump’s attacks have been bolstered by a wave of television advertising painting Haley as weak on immigration and opposed to his agenda, while his allies have slammed the former South Carolina governor (and Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the United Nations), too. Responding to an NBC News question Friday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said that “when it came to standing up for election integrity, Nikki Haley was disloyal to President Trump.”

Attacking your opponent as a “Republican in Name Only” or “RINO” has been standard fare in GOP politics for more than a decade now, though the tactic was supercharged by Trump. For Haley, she is faced with the task of overcoming the attacks while running in a party in which conservative bona fides are not just determined by one’s record but, for many GOP voters, also defined by the former president and the loyalty tests he and his allies put forth.

Complicating the problem further for Haley, who was elected governor as a tea party-aligned Republican in 2010, is that a big chunk of her support base is made up of the GOP’s more moderate and anti-Trump voting bloc — a group in which many members see her as a kindred spirit or a throwback to a pre-MAGA Republican.

But Haley has pushed back. In response to an NBC News question at a campaign event in Amherst on Friday, she asked anyone claiming that she’s not conservative to “name one thing that I wasn’t conservative on,” citing voter ID efforts, right-wing immigration laws and pension reform she championed as governor.

“Not one person can tell you how I wasn’t conservative,” she said, adding, “Show me where I’m moderate because I’m not. The difference is who is deciding who’s conservative and who’s moderate.”

“Is it because of what I say?” Haley added. “Is it how I talk?”

Haley and her allies have highlighted her conservative credentials prominently in an advertising blitz. In a recent post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, she promoted one of those ads. 

“I’m a Tea Party governor,” she wrote. “I passed one of the toughest immigration bills in the country. I defended life. I passed voter ID & cut taxes. At the UN, I was tougher on China & Russia than Trump ever was. I’ll put my conservative record up against anyone.”

And as she’s taken a harder line with Trump, she has punched back at his own conservative credibility.  

“I passed voter ID before he even knew what a Republican was,” she said Sunday.

Many of the anti-Haley attacks have been framed around polling that shows just who she is appealing to in the race. An NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa just prior to the GOP caucuses found that almost half of Haley’s supporters — 43% — said they would vote for President Joe Biden over Trump this fall.

In New Hampshire, surveys keep showing Haley losing to Trump by roughly 40 points with registered Republicans but winning by about 10 to 20 points with the sizable number of undeclared voters in the state.

What’s more, a number of voters at Haley events said they do see her as more of a moderate than a hard-line conservative. John Scanlon, a Manchester voter who backed Trump in 2016 and 2020, said after a Haley event in Nashua that “I would say she’s probably more of a moderate candidate.”

“It’s a funny distinction that people make,” he added. “Because the issues are far, far more complex than moderate and conservative. You have to separate economic trends and national security. Though I would say she’s more moderate, more of a conciliator in a bipartisan way.”

Others, meanwhile, couldn’t see themselves casting a ballot for Trump should he face off with Biden this fall — a potentially serious liability for Trump in a general election contest but further fodder to condemn Haley with amid a primary. 

Donna Dostie, a Haley supporter from Hooksett, said she would write in the former U.N. ambassador this fall should she not make it through the primary. She said she backed Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

“I think she’s going to put us on the right track,” she said. “We need to get out of the chaos and a lot of what Trump has brought to our country … Trump makes me nervous. He really does. I think he’s a dangerous man.”

Trump’s supporters who spoke for this article didn’t worry too much whether Haley fit more neatly in as a moderate or conservative. They just didn’t think that her candidacy mattered particularly much as Trump leads her by double-digits here and across the country.

Maria Martins, a Trump supporter from Manchester, described Haley as a “total nonentity.”

“She’s a nonentity, not the person Nikki Haley, but her policies and what she supports are not the things that people in New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die State do. Absolutely not.”

Haley’s campaign has taken particular issue with the idea that the agenda she’s advocating is insufficiently conservative. And allies, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have taken a recent swath of Trump endorsements by sitting senators as a sign that he, and not Haley, is the establishment candidate in the race. Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley spokesperson, said: “Nikki has always been a tough, anti-establishment conservative.”

“As governor, she signed pro-life legislation, cracked down on illegal immigration, and took on both parties over spending and transparency issues,” Perez-Cubas said. “As ambassador, she was tough on our enemies and always supported our allies. That’s the Nikki you see running for president.”

Former New Hampshire state Rep. Kim Rice, a Haley supporter, said the wave of Trump attacks was merely a sign that she is a threat to his candidacy.

“She is definitely a conservative,” Rice said. “She was a tea party governor. These people are killing me with their ‘she’s a Democrat.’ I think it’s desperation.”

South Carolina state Rep. Chris Wooten, a fellow Haley supporter, said that her more moderate support base isn’t a sign that she’s compromised on her ideals.

“Nikki was literally the outsider before it was cool,” he said. “Yes, she appeals to the moderate voters because people are tired of the same ole same ole with Trump.”

“And for the record,” Wooten added. “All of the hard-right conservatives that are mad about the same ‘corrupt politicians’ staying in office are wanting Trump? I just think it’s a weird narrative.”