The choice of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address and the strong language she used in her speech are the clearest signs yet that the GOP establishment is finally ready to take on Donald Trump.
A battle between the party’s elected leadership and its presidential frontrunner has been expected for months, with the more conventional White House contenders and lawmakers sniping at the “outsider” billionaire who has tapped into a well of anger and anxiety in the primary electorate.
If it were any other candidate, the enthusiasm displayed at Trump rallies would have Republican leaders counting the minutes to Election Day. Instead, the real estate magnate’s policy positions, most notably his call to bar Muslims from entering the country, have GOP insiders worried that victory could slip through their fingers in November.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), who last month took exception to Trump’s proposed ban, saying it didn’t represent conservative values and violated the spirit of the Constitution, no doubt consulted with various groups within the Republican Party before choosing Haley, a daughter of immigrants who made national headlines when she led the charge to remove of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds after a racist shooting.
It’s also hard to imagine that the text of Haley’s speech didn’t get a greenlight from Ryan, the new face of the party who wants to harness the power of the speakership to offer a Republican vision of the future for the country.
In her speech late Tuesday, the South Carolina governor said that "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,” she later added.
On Wednesday, Haley confirmed what everyone had been thinking: that she was referring to Trump.
"He was one of them, yes," she said on NBC's Today show. "There’s other people in the media, there's people in my state. I think we're seeing it across the country.”
Trump wasted little time firing back at Haley, and at President Obama, who used his final address to Congress to ask Americans to reject “any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”
Speaking by telephone to the hosts of Fox and Friends, Trump accused Haley of being weak on immigration, his signature issue.
"No. 1, she's very weak on illegal immigration. I've known that for a long time,” Trump said. "And she certainly has no trouble asking me for campaign contributions. Because over the years, she's asked me for a hell of a lot of money in campaign contributions. So it's sort of interesting to hear her.”
“Perhaps if I weren't running, she'd be in my office asking me for money,” he added. "But now that I'm running, she wants to take a weak side on immigration. I feel very strongly about illegal immigration. She doesn't."
He also said that Obama “probably” doesn’t like him.
The war of words is likely to continue, given Trump’s history of harping on any perceived slight, as we head into Thursday’s Republican presidential debate.
What remains to be seen is if any of the establishment candidates – Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush – will take advantage of the opening provided by Ryan and Haley to go after Trump.
With less than three weeks left before the crucial Iowa Caucuses, the contenders may be running out of time to knock off the former reality TV star. A win in the Hawkeye State would give Trump serious momentum going into the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.
Were Trump to win both contests, and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20, the chances of preventing him from becoming the GOP would be greatly diminished.
And Ryan and the party apparatus would have to begin thinking about how they will work with a nominee they openly opposed.