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OPINION

Who’s a RINO? (Hint: Not Nikki Haley.)

Haley is getting hammered by Donald Trump for being a “Republican in name only.” But she may be the most conservative candidate in the race.

Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

After shaking hands and taking smiley selfies with voters at Mary Ann’s Diner in Amherst, N.H., on Friday, Nikki Haley turned to the press. “For all of those that are reporting that I’m a ‘moderate,’ I will ask you…name one thing that I wasn’t conservative on,” she asked. Then she highlighted her record as governor of South Carolina, including passing voter ID, implementing the “toughest illegal immigration law in the country,” and cutting taxes. “Not one person can tell you how I wasn’t conservative.”

But one person is: former president Donald Trump. As Haley has risen in the polls to become Trump’s most formidable challenger in the Republican primaries for president, the former president has shifted his ire from Ron DeSantis to Haley, his former ambassador to the UN, trying to brand her an establishment “puppet” and someone “Loved By Democrats, Wall Street donors, and globalists.”

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Campaign emails slam her for saying in 2012 that “the real reason I actually ran for office is because of Hillary Clinton.” Trump supporters, many of whom admired Haley as Trump’s UN ambassador, are now singing the same tune. At Trump headquarters in Manchester on Saturday, Tina Hemming, 49, from central New York, told me that supporting Haley is “a vote for Biden.” Donning a bedazzled Trump cap, Hemming told me that Haley “wants open borders, she’s backed by all your elite Democrats.”

Other Republicans disagree. At Mary Ann’s Diner, Cory Casalegno was crammed into a booth with his wife, two daughters, sister-in-law, and her three children. Casalegno, an Iraq war veteran from Merrimack, told me he thinks Haley can bring the Republican Party back to its conservative roots. A former registered Republican, Casalegno told me that under Trump, the Republican Party “kind of left us” and hopes Haley can “right the ship.”

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Since Trump’s commanding victory in the Iowa caucuses, the Republican establishment — including Senators Marco Rubio and Tim Scott — has begun to close ranks behind him, while Haley is staving off criticism that she is an establishment candidate backed by people that Trump has branded “RINOs,” like Senator Mitt Romney. (RINO stands for “Republican in name only.”)

But though Haley has indeed formed a more broad-based coalition than Trump’s populist base, branding her a non-conservative is a stretch. On many policies, she offers an agenda closer to the conservatism that evolved out of Ronald Reagan’s leadership. Trump has rebranded the very notion of conservatism, replacing it with his flavor of populism that embraces politically convenient ideas from the left and right.

On money matters, Haley slams both Biden and Trump for being big spenders. “The majority of Americans disapprove of both [Trump and Biden],” she said in Amherst. “Everybody saw they spent trillions of dollars in debt.” She went on, “You don’t run up the credit cards to make the economy better.” On entitlements, Trump has claimed that Haley is trying to steal senior citizens’ checks. But reforming bankruptcy-bound New Deal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare used to be a mainstay of Republican platforms.

More traditional conservatives are gravitating towards Haley’s fiscal responsibility. Doug and Stella Scamman, former state representatives from Stratham, told me they like that Haley majored in accounting. “I think we need an accountant in the White House to oversee what’s going on with the lack of getting budgets passed by Congress,” Stella told me. At a Haley rally in Manchester on Friday, a small-business owner named Himanshu Desai, 47, told me he’s supporting Haley because she understands the needs of small businesses and the greater economy. “If you’re running a household, right, would you run up eight trillion dollars in debt?” he said.

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“Make America Great Again” is a line Trump lifted from the Reagan campaign. But that’s as far as the campaigns’ similarities go, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The president enthusiastically embraces the rising tide of isolationism among the Republican base, the kind that pervaded the party in the run up to World War II. Haley on the other hand is a holdout of the Gipper’s peace-through-strength mindset.

On Ukraine, while Trump’s allies in the House of Representatives have held military aid to Ukraine hostage to a major overhaul of immigration policy, Haley argued in Manchester that supporting Ukraine is about “preventing war” for the US. “Terrorists, dictators, and thugs always tell us what they’re gonna do. … Russia said once they take Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next.” She added: “Those are NATO countries; that immediately puts America at war.”

Some Republicans still agree. Representative Michael McCaul, a solidly conservative Republican from Texas who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Post that abandoning NATO is “not going to make the world safer. … Reagan would never have surrendered to the Soviet Union. Maybe that’s a shift in our party.”

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Part of Trump’s branding of Haley as a RINO stems from the fact that some moderates and liberals are supporting her as the alternative to Trump. In Amherst, two friends, Priscilla Greene, 73, and Mary, who didn’t give her last name, 88, both independents from Nashua, told me they are considering voting for Haley as an alternative to Trump, because they see the former president as a threat to democracy. “I am just so possessed by getting rid of Donald Trump that I am not seeing beyond what other issues are,” said Greene.

At Haley’s Manchester rally, James Parker, 42, told me he was supporting Haley because she is “much more conservative” than Trump. Parker, who describes himself as “fiscally conservative” and in favor of strong foreign policy, said he doesn’t think “Trump has any ideology. … I think there were some conservative victories there, but I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination, he’s an actual conservative.”

Before Trump, a Republican who swayed these kinds of voters to such a conservative agenda would have been considered a success. New Hampshire’s open primary, where non-aligned independent voters play a big role, gives Haley a chance to show off her coalition-building ability, bringing together Biden-weary liberals, traditional conservatives, and moderates. But this coalition is both Haley’s triumph and her millstone: She consistently polls as the strongest Republican general election candidate against President Joe Biden, but she struggles to capture a Republican party under Trump’s thumb.

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That is true even in her home state of South Carolina, where Haley served as governor. Trump has secured the endorsement of both of the state’s senators and its current governor. “Now they’re saying ‘well if you win in New Hampshire that’s favorable territory, but not South Carolina,’ ” she told reporters in Amherst. “I won South Carolina twice as governor, I think I know what favorable territory is in South Carolina.” But she won as a conservative because Trump wasn’t a factor — now he has a chokehold on the party.

New Hampshire’s independent-heavy primary is a test case for Haley’s ability to build a broad coalition. That coalition could win a general election — and might even beat Trump in the Granite State itself. But in closed Republican primaries, she’ll face a bigger challenge: Can she prove herself to be the most conservative Republican?

The answer depends on who you ask. As Trump takes over the GOP establishment and unmoors the meaning of conservatism from its Reaganesque roots, Haley will struggle to find a base. In this way, Trump might be right about Haley being a RINO, but only because he has changed what it means to be a Republican.


Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at carine.hajjar@globe.com.