Gov. Nikki Haley's rebuttal to President Obama's final State of the Union address is shaping up to be more significant than usual — and not just because she is refusing to call it a rebuttal.
The South Carolina Republican doesn't plan on responding directly to Obama's speech to the nation and a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening. Rather, Haley said she would treat the spotlight as an opportunity to present her solutions to the difficult challenges Americans are facing. But Haley's choice to represent the GOP in the rebuttal slot is rich with political undertones that say much about her party as first votes in the presidential primary approach.
New Yorker Donald Trump has dominated the Republican nomination fight. The celebrity businessman made his mark with controversial rhetoric — offensive, many Republicans say — directed at Hispanic illegal immigrants and Muslim Americans. Simultaneously, Haley was establishing a national profile as an inclusive Republican who removed the Confederate flag from the state Capitol and united South Carolinians in the aftermath of the assassination of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist.
This dichotomy in paths Trump and Haley cut to political prominence comes as the Republican Party struggles to sell conservatism to younger voters and ethnic minorities, not to mention win presidential elections in an America that is less white and more culturally diverse. So it's hardly coincidental that House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky invited Haley to deliver this year's State of the Union response.
"If you want to hear an inclusive leader who's visionary, who's got a path for the future, who's brought people together, who's unified: it's Nikki Haley," Ryan said Monday during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.
"Haley is a good choice because she is a respected governor who can expand the Republican message to viewers from the perspective of an accomplished minority," added Ron Bonjean, a Republican public relations consultant who previously worked as a congressional leadership aide.
Haley is young, just 43 despite serving in her second term as governor, and the daughter of immigrants. The first female Indian-American governor in the country, Haley got there by winning a 2010 GOP primary as the Tea Party candidate, before cruising in the general election in the deep-red Palmetto State. Her record is conservative; she has fought the unions and declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But she has shied away from using overtly divisive rhetoric.
After some turbulence in her first term that saw her butt heads with the Republican-controlled legislature and fall short of some voters' expectations, Haley has emerged as a popular figure in her state, including among some former critics. One Republican said that Haley has excelled in areas beyond what drew national notice. She's been praised for her leadership during recent natural disasters and lauded for taking a common sense approach to running things in Columbia.
"Nikki has matured a lot as governor," said a Republican insider in South Carolina. "Her last two years have been meaningful. The public knows of her work with the Confederate flag, etc. But she has been committed to managing the nuts and bolts of government."
Delivering a response to the State of the Union is fraught with political risk.
There's no audience to feed off of or aura of the presidency to command authority; mistakes or errors in presentation are magnified. In 2009, following Obama's first address to the nation from the well of the House, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — the nation's first Indian-American governor — discovered that first hand. Considered a rising GOP star and possible presidential timber, his image never quite recovered from a rebuttal that was reviewed as awkward and stiff.
The risks are no less so for Haley, who possibly has much to gain, and more to lose, than Jindal did seven years ago. Republican insiders in South Carolina believe Haley would like to be considered for the vice presidential nomination. Hitting a home run on Tuesday evening would elevate her name in the conversation, especially with the 2016 primary campaign poised to shift to South Carolina and the state's first in the south primary in mid-February.
Bungle the speech, and it the result could be the exact opposite. Haley will deliver her address from the governor's mansion in Columbia. She declined to tell reporters much about what she was planning to say. The governor and her team were still crafting the message on Monday. Haley, a Clemson University alum, canceled plans to attend the NCAA Football National Championship game between Clemson and the University of Alabama to prepare.
"The reason I didn't want it to be a response to the president is, I certainly am not one to compete against the president or try to imply that I could be," Haley told reporters in South Carolina. "What I did want to do is just take this as an opportunity to express the challenges that I think we have seen in our state, but also in our country, and the solutions."