WASHINGTON – Two fresh faces in the Republican Party – House Speaker Paul Ryan and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – are offering messages of diversity and openness to immigrants that could answer the GOP establishment's increasingly desperate search for an antidote to the loud pronouncements of presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
Delivering the GOP rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, called for welcoming legal immigrants to the country as long as they're properly vetted, and for resisting the temptation "to follow the siren call of the angriest voices."
She acknowledged Wednesday that her comments were partly aimed at Trump, telling NBC's "Today Show": "Mr. Trump has definitely contributed to what I think is just irresponsible talk."
Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican beginning his third month as speaker of the House, has been pledging to offer a bold agenda that will position the GOP as a positive alternative to Obama and the Democrats. Last weekend he helped convene an anti-poverty summit with some of the GOP presidential candidates — Trump was absent — where he pressed for "a safety net that is designed to help get people out of poverty."
Such rhetoric from two young and charismatic officeholders cheers establishment Republicans who fear that the rise of Trump and of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — with their frequent strong words on immigrants in the country illegally — could ruin the GOP for years, eliminating any chance of winning the White House if either is the nominee and turning off swing voters, minorities and women.
"Speaker Ryan and Gov. Haley provide an important contrast, particularly with independent voters, to show what the Republican Party is really about, and it's not about Donald Trump," said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist. "The key, though, is continuing to shine a light on leaders like the two of them, and that will depend in part on who we nominate."
Whether Haley or Ryan can do anything to sideline Trump or Cruz remains to be seen. That's not their explicit goal, and Haley, in particular, drew a backlash from some conservatives for her State of the Union rebuttal.
"Trump should deport Nikki Haley," conservative talk host Ann Coulter said over Twitter.
And at the Capitol, Haley's comments on immigration were being interpreted by House conservatives including Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a Cruz supporter, as a call for unlimited legal immigration into the country, something they reject.
"I keep trying to remember when a principled conservative has been given the opportunity to provide that rebuttal," King told reporters, adding that Haley's comments would indicate she's not one.
"They are looking for someone who fits the profile that they want to be the face of the Republican Party and that's the rationale," King added later in an interview, speaking of party leaders. Asked if he would want Haley as the face of the party King said laughingly: "I think she's beautiful so I'd be happy if she's the face of the party."
Trump himself criticized Haley in an interview on "Fox & Friends," calling her "very weak on illegal immigration."
Yet for a GOP establishment that has struggled with how to respond to Trump and Cruz, Haley and Ryan stand as a welcome rejoinder. Their messages are not too different from what has been heard from some of the mainstream presidential candidates, notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But Bush and other establishment Republicans have struggled to break through, while Ryan and Haley, as prominent elected officials in their own right, have their own platforms.
"What Paul Ryan is trying to do is put forward a substantive, thoughtful policy agenda for the country," said moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "Every presidential candidate should be doing the same thing."
At the same time party leaders are mindful that Trump and Cruz are channeling very real voter anger and a backlash against Washington, which is at least partly a creation of GOP leaders' failure to make good on repeated promises to effectively oppose Obama.
Conservatives warn that activists will not respond well if GOP party leaders start aligning themselves with Obama against Trump, as some interpreted Haley's remarks.
"Trump's response the next day will just be 'Well you heard President Obama and the Republican leadership response echo each other, they're on the same team.' That's his thesis," said conservative Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia. "And his thesis seems to be correct."
Haley's standing with conservatives was not likely to benefit from the White House decision on Wednesday to praise her, with press secretary Josh Earnest saying she deserved credit.
However, Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said Trump's approach could become a liability, though he said there's time to correct course.
"No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and you cannot win Ohio with a divisive message," Borges said as the Republican National Committee convened its winter meetings in Charleston, South Carolina. He said he delivered that message to the candidate personally.
Ultimately, Borges said, Trump and the party will have the opportunity to shift. "Part of this is just the primary process playing out," he said, adding, "I think he understands that we have to have a unifying, inclusive message."
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed from Charleston, South Carolina.