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Analysis

Nikki Haley uses the national stage to criticize Obama -- and warn fellow Republicans

With soft-spoken but undeniably tart words, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley vaulted onto the national stage Tuesday night for the second time in less than a year, going after both President Obama and presidential candidates in her own Republican Party. The question left unanswered: Did she do herself good or harm — or both — in her response to the president’s State of the Union address?  

Some Democrats watching Haley’s speech — which followed Obama’s final State of the Union of his presidency — praised her, albeit largely because of her explicit criticism of her party. Republicans seemed split, with some embracing her remarks and others put out that she used the significant platform to tweak her own party and its candidates.

At the very least, if Haley increased her standing in the illusory vice presidential sweepstakes of some candidates, she took herself off front-runner Donald Trump’s short list.

She never mentioned Trump by name, but her intent was clear. She told Americans that the country needed to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices.”

“We must resist that temptation,” she said in a passage about immigrants like her Indian parents. “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

A short time later she added, again at the expense of Trump: “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true.”

But he was not the only one in her sights. Haley, whose state is third to vote in the GOP nominating season, also appeared to be criticizing candidates Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and others when she said that all “properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion,” should be welcomed. Both men have toyed with the notion of barring immigrants from Syria and Iraq or a broader group of Muslims.

To be sure, most of Haley's criticism was aimed at Obama, even as she heralded him as a historic figure. But she implied he was to blame for the national debt, a flawed healthcare program and “chaotic unrest in many of our cities.”

But it was her remarks aimed at Republican candidates that drew the most attention, rare as they were in this everyone-in-their-own-corners political environment.

“Nikki Haley's speech would've been good except for the GOP self-loathing,” Amanda Carpenter, a conservative CNN commentator and former Cruz aide, wrote on Twitter. 

Bush, the former Florida governor, took a different view: “Proud of my friend @nikkihaley for delivering a positive & uplifting response to Pres. Obama’s #SOTU. Clear vision for a brighter future.”

The differing responses to Haley’s remarks reflected the broader split within the Republican Party this season. Some, like Bush, want to go at Trump; others want to emphasize Republican fealty. Several of the other candidates, including Cruz, the senator from Texas, have opted against assaulting the front-runner, in hopes of scooping up Trump's voters if he trips.

Although as the second-term governor of South Carolina she is not a pillar of the Washington establishment, Haley certainly gave voice to its horror over Trump's candidacy as he has systematically targeted women, Latinos, the disabled, Muslims and other groups over much of the last year.

Over the same period, Haley has gone out of her way to embrace the framework the GOP establishment sought to put on the presidential contest until it was hijacked by Trump: that of a party reaching out to women and minorities in ways it hadn’t in the past.

She was a major player in the drive to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House last year in the wake of a mass shooting of black churchgoers in  Charleston.

In prior campaigns, candidates had been forced to either defend the symbol of the Confederacy, in the state that was first to secede leading up to the Civil War, or run from the issue.  And very few candidates ever objected to the flag’s presence.

Yet in the days after the Charleston church shooting stunned South Carolina, Haley worked with other officials and state leaders to craft an agreement to take down the flag, and it was she who announced it. She was present at the State House when the flag came down after more than half a century in residence.

Voters who heard her comments then found some similarity in her tone on Tuesday night (she also told the story of the shootings and her state’s response, setting it out as an exemplar of civil behavior).

The obvious question after her speech was whether this would affect her chances of being considered as a vice presidential nominee. Haley was talked up in 2012, but didn't make the list of finalists for nominee Mitt Romney.

Yet even if Haley had received universal praise for her remarks Tuesday, it’s unclear whether it would last through the rough-and-tumble of the months ahead.

She proved that she can deliver a speech in one of the hardest formats — alone, speaking into a camera absent the audience that feeds most politicians. The speech was well-written. To those spotting her for the first time, she probably seemed like a voice of reason in a campaign that has often featured the opposite.

Unlike Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the 2013 responder, she didn’t make the faux pas of reaching for a bottle of water; unlike then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the 2009 responder, she didn’t sound too young to be on the national stage.

But she also spoke in generalities, talking about broad Republican goals without any of the messy details that so often alienate voters.

Among Republicans, the response to her may take a while to spool out. Some will approve; others will be sympathetic but wish she’d spared no insult to Obama and skipped the GOP upbraiding. And some will consider her just another establishment Republican trying to make hay in this year that has been so inhospitable to establishment Republicans.

So far, the majority of GOP voters who have sided with outsiders in the 2016 campaign have turned rapidly on anyone criticizing their candidate; that is particularly true of Trump voters. The reaction to Haley and the implications for her future are something of an echo of the larger Republican fight this year, and there’s as much guesswork in seeing how it turns out as there is in the presidential race itself.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker . For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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