On Tuesday night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley did what she was supposed to do in the Republican response to the State of the Union: Draw a contrast between President Barack Obama’s vision and what she said was America’s “chance to turn in a new direction.”
But most of her address was an implicit rebuke of GOP front-runner Donald Trump and some of the xenophobic rhetoric that’s animated the Republican presidential primary.
"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country," Haley said.
At age 43, Haley is the youngest governor in the country and she symbolizes what many in the GOP establishment fear the party is lacking — even driving away.
She projects the "compassion and inclusiveness the party sorely needs right now," said former RGA Executive Director Phil Cox. “Our nominee would be crazy not to have her on a very short list" for vice president, added Cox, who runs New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's super PAC, but was not speaking for it or Christie. In a year when outsider appeal has become the strongest currency in the GOP primary, Haley's position as a governor is especially important, Republican operatives agreed.
“You’ve paid attention to what has been happening in Washington, and you’re not naive," Haley said in her address, empathizing with viewers outside the Beltway. “Neither am I. I see what you see. And many of your frustrations are my frustrations."
She even confronted her own party, tapping into the anti-establishment rancor driving support for this year's so-called outsider candidates.
"We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken," she said, speaking to her fellow Republicans.
Haley's speech — what Republicans are officially calling an address — laid out a more inclusive vision for the Republican party than has often been heard in this election year and secured Haley’s position as a strong vice presidential contender.
“I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country. Growing up in the rural South, my family didn’t look like our neighbors, and we didn’t have much,” said Haley, the first female and minority governor of South Carolina.
Elected in 2010, Haley came to power with strong tea party support in the Palmetto State. She was virtually unknown when first elected, but since then, Winthrop Poll Director Scott Huffmon said, her approval rating has been steadily rising.
Political opponents have tried to tarnish her with allegations of infidelity and ethics violations, but "nothing ever stuck," Huffmon said. Haley's approval rating among the general public soared this summer, Huffmon said, after she led the charge to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House in response to a white man killing nine people at Charleston's historically black Emanuel AME church.
"She took a bold stance, took a risk, and threaded the needle," Huffmon said.
Haley invoked South Carolina's recent violence and the state's flag controversy several times during her address to paint a not-so-subtle contrast with Trump's rhetoric about banning Muslims from entering the country.
“We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion," Haley said of her state's response to the shooting. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume."
"Not only has she had to handle the Confederate flag issue, but she comes from a state that had a number of natural disasters," GOP consultant Ron Bonjean said of her viability as a vice presidential contender. "She is a more tested figure than maybe some others."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the rare presidential candidate to take to Twitter Tuesday night to comment on Haley's speech, calling it a "positive and uplifting response," while former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called her performance "a good first step on the national stage."
Haley endorsed Mitt Romney in late 2011, and this year's candidates have already been courting her support ahead of the state's Feb. 20 primary.
If a more conservative candidate wins the nomination — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example — "someone like Haley takes the edge off of his conservatism," GOP consultant Jason Roe said, of the benefits she'd bring to a GOP ticket.
Risk-taking has been part of Haley's tenure as South Carolina's governor, Huffmon said, and by most Republicans' accounts, that strategy has paid off, including on Tuesday night.
The out-of-power party's response to the State of the Union can be a springboard to a higher national profile or can alter an up-and-comer's trajectory . By most accounts, Haley's performance was the former.
"To be very frank, I don’t usually advise my clients to do State of the Union responses," said Phil Musser, another former executive director of the RGA whose digital firm, IMGE, has worked for Haley. "But when I heard she was doing this I couldn’t have been more proud."
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