By broad consensus, the winner of Thursday night's GOP debate was Donald Trump, followed by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, with most of the postgame commentary focused on "the fight" between Cruz and Trump.
Oh, how we love a good fight.
But the real fight was revealed a couple of nights earlier when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave the Republican Party's response to President Obama's State of the Union address. She pulled no punches and brought the fight to her own party. Nice and pretty-like.
Rather than exclusively critiquing Obama's presidency, as many expected, Haley turned her sights on the angry tenor of GOP politics and our dysfunctional government, for which she said Republicans are partly responsible.
"There is more than enough blame to go around," she said. "We as Republicans need to own that truth. … We need to accept that we've played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it." Whoo-hoo. Sorry, but sometimes it takes a girl.
Noting that we live in anxious times, she nonetheless urged her fellow Republicans to resist the "siren call of the angriest voices." Gosh, wonder who she meant?
To a certain kind of Republican, this was pure heresy. But it was also brave, necessary and true especially if the GOP is to survive or ever hope to reclaim the White House.
Haley's gentle cri de Coeur neatly exposed the battle lines. On one side are those who deploy anger, bias, nativism and fear. On the other are those who want to reshape the GOP into a party that's based on ideals of inclusiveness and respect for others (like, maybe, a first-generation, Indian American daughter of Sikh immigrants), exercises caution through reformed immigration policies without demonizing swaths of people, and recognizes that winning hearts and minds begins with civility and communication.
"Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That's just not true," Haley said. "Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference."
Haley confirmed on NBC's "Today" the following morning that she was, indeed, referring to Trump, who shouldn't take it personally. During the debate Thursday, Trump said he is happy to wear the mantle of anger because he is angry, and he assured the audience that he and Haley, who was beaming in the crowd, are good friends.
That's nice. But what's clear is that Haley, who is widely considered a likely vice-presidential candidate, had decided that she didn't need a Trump alliance and was choosing the "establishment lane" of the party, or, as some prefer, the "rational lane." In other words, she signaled her support for Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush.
But which is it? What does Haley know that we don't know? As unlikely as it seems at this juncture that any of these but Rubio has a reasonable shot at the nomination, we might assume that she's banking on Rubio.
This would be a dream ticket for Republicans. A bilingual Cuban (check Hispanic vote), a woman (check), both first-generation Americans, coverage in two crucial states (South Carolina and Florida), and perhaps most important, a younger generation of leadership without the baggage of the establishment. They would completely collapse the smallish Republican tent of older white males and build a rainbow-hued edifice of diversity in which race and religion are not the first questions on anyone's mind.
Haley, whom I've known for several years, is a polished politician, make no mistake. She doesn't accidentally do anything, such as fumble the most important speech of her career. I also know from conversations that she has been changed by her time in office, altered by her experiences dealing with the horrific murders of nine African Americans in a Charleston church and by her subsequent decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.
The latter was a calculated political risk and her speech a gamble that truth wins in the end. This truth includes the lesson of South Carolina after the shootings, when the state's people embraced one another in love and dedication to a shared, higher purpose of unity, forgiveness and racial reconciliation.
Haley's point: If we can do this as a state, we can do this as a nation. It's a worthy goal and a battle worthy of its opponents.