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MAGA or moderate? New Hampshire Republicans decide for their state, and the party

Former President Donald Trump acknowledges supporters at the end of a campaign rally on Jan. 14 in Concord, N.H.
Chip Somodevilla
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump acknowledges supporters at the end of a campaign rally on Jan. 14 in Concord, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H. – When New Hampshire voters head to the polls Tuesday, they will not only be picking a nominee.

Their choice between former President Donald Trump and his former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, will also send a big signal about their feelings on the future of the party.

Luke Rose, a 26-year-old casino dealer, was bowling with co-workers at Yankee Lanes, a downtown Manchester bowling alley. Between turns, he described the way he views the conflict as being between what he calls the "MAGA idealism" of Trump and traditional conservative values of Haley.

He's convinced Trump's way will win out.

"The message that will be sent [on Tuesday] is that Trump has officially been chosen. He's the one," Rose predicted. "And beyond that, we have to prepare ourselves, whether we like it or not, for a MAGA America or a Biden America."

Luke Rose, 26, spends evening bowling with some friends in Manchester, NH on Jan. 21, 2024.
Franco Ordoñez / National Public Radio
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National Public Radio
Luke Rose, 26, spends evening bowling with some friends in Manchester, NH on Jan. 21, 2024.

The tightening race has thrown a spotlight on the identity crisis within the Republican party and the debate between populism and small-government conservatism.

Ever since Donald Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower, the Republican party has been struggling to figure out what it stood for.

The more establishment, anti-Trump, forces within the party have long been clamoring for this choice, said Alex Conant, who helped lead Senator Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016.

The choice is between Trump who is the embodiment of the new wave of conservative populism and Haley who more represents the limited government wing of the party that also supports strong foreign policy.

Conant acknowledges the party has already moved so far away from its traditional values since Trump's rise.

"The New Hampshire primary is the last hurdle for Donald Trump to demonstrate that the Republican Party is a populist party now," Conant said. "And that the limited government, traditional conservatives that Nikki Haley represents do not have any real power within the party."

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to potential voters during a campaign stop in Hooksett, New Hampshire.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to potential voters during a campaign stop in Hooksett, New Hampshire.

The Trump campaign says there was never any doubt whose party it is.

Jason Miller, a senior advisor on the campaign says Trump has not only unified the base behind him, but he's also brought in new coalition of voters and expanded the party.

"What President Trump has done to show that the populism and working class Americans now side with the Republican Party," Miller said.

Phil Palker says he's one of those Americans. The 59-year-transportation worker, and former Coast Guard navigator, says Trump changed the party and he evolved with the former president.

Trump connects with voters like him in a way that no other politicians have before, Palker said.

"You know, I was pretty stagnant Republican," he said. "But ever since Donald Trump started running in 2015, I think his message is revealing to who the party is."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Franco Ordoñez
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.