It’s tempting to say the Republican Party is letting Nikki Haley audition for the vice presidential slot later this year when the South Carolina governor delivers the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
The comely, 43-year old Indian-American Republican commanded national attention last June when she led her state in mourning after a young white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at an historic Charleston church. She then galvanized Republican and Democratic state officials to support legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol.
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"I'm really excited about this," House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) told CNN yesterday in previewing Haley’s speech. "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."
Since her sterling performance and unifying speeches that captured the nation’s attention, Haley has begun once again to pop up on lists of likely vice presidential running mates as the 2016 GOP presidential campaign began to heat up. With her political profile as the first woman and the first racial minority to become governor of a deeply conservative state, Haley struck many as a natural to help the national party reach out to women, young voters and Tea Party types who helped launch her unlikely political career.
But some political experts say that Haley’s record and performance as governor has been far less successful and dynamic than many outsiders would assume, especially in terms of her legislative achievements relating to government reform, the budget, highway construction and other issues.
“In South Carolina, there’s a lot of concern about animosity between her and the legislature, and that when it comes to listing a number of significant accomplishments in office, it’s hard to find stuff,” David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and GOP political consultant, said in an interview Monday. “But a lot of politics is symbolic, and she certainly seems to fit what people are looking for nowadays,” Woodard added.
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Whether Haley’s star turn delivering the nationally televised GOP State of the Union response will enhance her appeal on the national stage as a possible running mate for the ultimate GOP presidential nominee remains to be seen. However, there are certainly a number of serious caveats for anyone considering using it to catapult to higher office.
Last year, freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa was handpicked by the leadership to deliver the formal response to Obama’s address after winning election by campaigning as a down-home farm girl with military service. Ernst proved to be a good choice, and she delivered her speech without any gaffes that have dogged other politicians who delivered the GOP response in the past.
Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, dubbed “The Republican Savior” by Time magazine, got dry mouth while delivering his response in February 2013 and gulped water slightly off camera while delivering his speech. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Feb. 24, 2009 response to Obama’s first major address to Congress – in the wake of a terrible hurricane that clobbered his state – was so weak and tentative that it nearly destroyed Jindal’s career.
Haley may be too smooth to repeat those mistakes as she reaches out to a larger audience. Yet from a strictly national political perspective, the two-term governor may not be what Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or any of the other top tier presidential candidates will be looking for.
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There was a time when political analysts were calling the 2016 GOP presidential campaign the “Year of the Governors” because of the dominance of current and former governors in the field. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and so on were expected to excite voters with their substantial hands-on government experience.
Yet it turned out to be the year of the political outsiders and anti-establishment candidates – people like Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson – who captured the fancy of conservative Republican voters. It’s not clear at all that yet another governor like Haley with an uneven record of accomplishments is just what the presidential nominee will be looking for.
In 2010, Haley was elected governor on a conservative platform strongly backed by the Tea Party, succeeding Republican Mark Sanford, a close ally at the time. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Haley frequently turned up on lists of GOP vice presidential possibilities, although Republican nominee Mitt Romney ultimately picked Ryan ahead of Haley and a dozen others who were thought to be in the running.