Since it was announced earlier this month that Nikki Haley would deliver the official Republican response to the State of the Union, excitable pundits have hyped the speech as a dramatic, made-for-TV "audition" — a chance for South Carolina's young, telegenic governor to prove her talents, and compete for a coveted spot on the GOP's presidential ticket.
But while Haley's performance Tuesday night may have indeed solidified her A-list status in the Republican establishment, the primetime moment was actually the culmination of years of careful — and often quiet — backstage maneuvering by the governor's team as they worked to position her as a top-tier contender for the vice-presidential nomination.
“I think she’ll be on everybody’s  short list,” one Haley aide confidently predicted to BuzzFeed News in spring 2014. Similarly, Haley's top adviser, Tim Pearson, said at the same time that when it came to her prospects in a national campaign, "She has certainly been vetted and come out looking good on the other side."
Haley's high-profile role last year in getting the Confederate flag removed from state capitol grounds, and her leadership in the wake of the shooting at a black church in Charleston, helped turn her into one of the most popular governors in America.
Now, with her upbeat State of the Union response winning rave reviews from both pundits and many Republicans, Haley seems destined to become both a prominent fixture of this year's "veepstakes" conversation — and a target of hard-right populists.
In a striking illustration of the widening schism in the contemporary GOP, the most provocative portion of Haley's response Tuesday was aimed not at the Democratic incumbent, but at the front-runner for her own party's presidential nomination. After making reference to her upbringing as "the proud daughter of Indian immigrants" in the rural South, she took a barely veiled swipe at Donald Trump's signature nativism and rancorous rhetoric.
"Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory," Haley said. "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."
The message was perfectly pitched to the anxieties of GOP leaders who have been increasingly dismayed at the sight of a mean-spirited billionaire hijacking their party. Haley's measured, hopeful tone seemed almost diametrically opposed to that of the daily Donald show. If a coma victim awoke today with no knowledge of America's political landscape and then watched Haley's address back to back with Trump's latest stump speech, he would almost certainly not guess the two belonged to the same party.
For Republican elites — as well as moderate women, college-educated suburbanites, right-of-center Latinos, and a host of other swing-voting demographic groups who tend to find Trump repellant — the contrast drawn by Haley was probably an appealing one.
But of course, to The Donald's most rabid supporters, Haley's gentle criticism constituted something akin to a political war crime. The governor hadn't even finished her eight-minute remarks Tuesday night before talk-radio provocateurs and other right-wing critics were trashing her on Twitter.
As someone who came up through the festering swamps of South Carolina politics, Haley has heard worse. (The first time she ran for governor, a state lawmaker called her a "raghead.")
For a time, she all but vanished from the national stage while she fended off a procession of personal attacks, smear campaigns, and legislative investigations pushed by political opponents — an onslaught so relentless that some Washington Republicans declared the end of her national electoral prospects.
Now that Haley is in possession of a newly pristine political brand, however, her team seems doggedly determined to preserve it. Reporters from out-of-town news outlets who travel to South Carolina routinely complain about how much less accessible she is than other governors, and Haley's aides have been known in the past to brag about the number of times they've turned down invitations from Meet the Press.
There are greater sins than playing keep-away with the media, of course, but traditionally, in campaign politics, the running mate isn't the one fleeing at the first sign of mud — she's the one slinging and being slung at.
By taking on Trump in such a high-profile setting Tuesday, Haley signaled she isn't afraid of a fight. And if the angry din of conservative critics continues to grow noisier in coming days, the governor will face plenty more 2016 auditions.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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