Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley.
CNN  — 

As former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley earns praise from some corners of the GOP for her willingness to tackle the financial health of Social Security, former President Donald Trump is trying to punish her for it.

It’s the latest example of how the GOP’s seesawing approach to the program’s looming solvency crisis is surfacing in this primary – with the former president, who previously used the issue to attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now trying to blunt Haley’s momentum in the final days before voting begins.

Trump’s campaign released a new ad on Thursday targeting his rival Republican over her plans to reform government retirement benefits. Haley’s team shot back that the former president’s record undermines his claims that he is a champion of the popular entitlement program.

And the back-and-forth over Social Security isn’t reserved to the two leading candidates in New Hampshire. One of the most heated exchanges of Wednesday night’s CNN debate between DeSantis and Haley in Iowa, where Trump has dominated polling, occurred when the discussion veered to Social Security.

Social Security has long been a thorny issue for presidential candidates, especially in general elections, when the two nominees are in a heated race to win over reliable senior voters. But for Republicans, Trump’s arrival altered the dynamics of how the GOP talks about the program.

For decades, conservative budget hawks have attempted to tinker with it to keep it solvent. That changed in 2016, when Trump vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare, forcing Republicans to retreat from a bedrock position.

Conservatives have often expressed wariness of the program since it began in the 1930s. But as Americans have embraced Social Security – 79% opposed reducing the size of benefits in an AP-NORC poll conducted in March – opponents have changed tactics from trying to eliminate the benefit to cutting it or making drastic changes. An effort by then-President George W. Bush to privatize the program during his second term was met with strong resistance and ultimately failed.

Today more than 70 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, many of whom depend on it for basic living costs. In October, the Social Security Administration announced that recipients would receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment of 3.2% in the next year – smaller than recent adjustments.

As of now, the main fund for Social Security is projected to be depleted by 2033, according to a Social Security Administration report. Once that happens, the fund’s reserves will only be able to cover about 75% of the “scheduled benefits,” the report warned.

GOP presidential contenders this cycle have largely avoided the topic – except Trump, who has used it to attack his rivals, and Haley, who has won over some Republican donors for embracing a politically fraught subject.

“I recognize that Social Security and Medicare are the last thing the political class wants to talk about,” she said in September, before adding: “Any candidate who refuses to address them should be disqualified. They’ll take your vote and leave you broke.”

Among the changes Haley has embraced is raising the retirement age for future generations – but not for “those that have been promised” the entitlement, she has said.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top economic adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said it’s possible to push for cuts to the program without being punished politically.

“If people don’t know there’s a problem, then they view talk about changing Social Security as an attack on them and people fighting about Social Security are just fighting about ‘how do we conduct ourself on seniors?’” Holtz-Eakin said. “So you first have to explain that there’s a problem and if that’s done effectively then I think Americans, young and old, will agree something’s got to be done on Social Security, then settle on the very tough business of choosing precisely the reforms and where the burdens will be shifted.”

But that hasn’t stopped Trump from attacking Haley in New Hampshire, a state with one of the oldest median populations and where nearly one in five residents are over the age of 65.

“Americans were promised a secure retirement. Nikki Haley’s plan ends that,” says the narrator in one of two ads from his campaign now airing there. The ad leaves out that Haley is not proposing changes for current retirees or those nearing retirement age.

The former UN ambassador’s campaign called Trump’s ads a “lie” and said his “do-nothing plan” for Social Security would lead to its demise.

“All of Donald Trump’s attack ads prove that he is terrified of Nikki Haley’s rise,” said Haley spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik.

Haley’s campaign went on to point out that Trump has also advocated raising the retirement age to keep the program solvent.

During Trump’s presidency, and in the lead up to the 2024 primary contests, he cast himself as a stalwart protector of the entitlement program — even after his administration regularly proposed cuts to Social Security in his budget proposals. The former president has been quick to respond when it’s suggested he’s targeting the program.

In 2020, during a World Economic Forum interview, Trump said that “at some point,” he would have to consider cutting entitlement programs. Democrats quickly pounced and the then-president moved to do damage repair. He tweeted, “I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!”– illustrating how much he wanted to present himself as an opponent of cuts.

The latest attacks on Haley are reminiscent of ones Trump and his allies levied at DeSantis last spring, before the Florida governor had even entered the race. A super PAC supporting Trump aired two ads that accused DeSantis of cutting Social Security during his nearly six years in the US House. On social media, Trump called DeSantis a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy, just like his hero, failed politician (US Rep) Paul Ryan.”

As a candidate for the House in 2012, DeSantis supported Ryan’s plans to privatize Social Security. In an interview with a local Florida newspaper, DeSantis said it was “unsustainable” to allow seniors to retire before their late 60s and said the program should be restructured “for people in my generation.” While in Congress, DeSantis voted for nonbinding budget resolutions that would have made age 70 the new threshold for seniors to collect their federal benefits.

DeSantis has since distanced himself from those positions. He has made vague promises to change the program for future generations “in a bipartisan way,” but has offered few details.

In Wednesday’s debate, he assailed Haley’s insistence on raising the retirement age.

“I don’t see how you can raise the retirement age when our life expectancy is collapsing in this country,” he said.

Haley said DeSantis’ about-face on raising the retirement age reeked of political expediency.

“He is going to tell you because he is running for president he is not going to do it,” she said. “You can’t trust.”