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Story highlights

Nikki Haley called out the GOP's "angriest voices" Tuesday, in an attack against presidential front-runner Donald Trump

Trump has withstood Republican establishment attacks against him since entering the race last year

CNN —  

The state of the Republican Party is split.

A rebuke flung by GOP elites to the party’s “angriest” voices – code for Donald Trump – in the official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night only served to highlight differences opened by a boisterous presidential campaign.

AFP/Getty Images

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke to a national television audience and delivered the most visible and explicit shot yet by party grandees against what many see as the presidential front-runner’s disastrously divisive rhetoric.

Opinion: Nikki Haley should have run for president

By choosing a woman, an American of Indian Sikh heritage and someone now known for healing racial divides after the Charleston massacre, the GOP’s congressional leaders made a hardly subtle point about the need to broaden the party’s reach after two losing presidential election campaigns. There has been deep concern in establishment circles that Trump’s comments on Hispanic voters, women and Muslims could alienate more moderate voters needed to win a general election and hand Democrats the White House.

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley said from the governor’s residence in Columbia. She implicitly criticized the billionaire real estate star’s call for a temporary entry ban on Muslims.

RELATED: Haley: A pox on both your houses

Haley confirmed on CNN’s “New Day” that her speech was aimed “partially” at Trump – and that her remarks were cleared in advance by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – the top elected officials of the GOP establishment that Trump and his followers so disdain.

“We get more done when we listen and find out where someone else is coming from and put ourselves in their shoes to try and figure out where we can find common ground,” Haley said on “New Day.”

Haley had committed to delivering the speech under the condition it was her own, and Ryan and McConnell agreed, a Haley adviser said. “Your words, your ideas,” is how the adviser described Ryan’s direction to the governor.

The format also let the Republican establishment hit Trump in a format otherwise unavailable to them: a direct-to-camera speech with a huge (or, yuge) built-in audience delivered by someone not running for president. Unlike Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush, Haley’s hit isn’t about immediately helping her in Iowa or New Hampshire —although it could help her vice presidential chances with an establishment nominee. And as opposed to in a debate format, Trump had to wait until the morning to deliver his inevitable counter-assault.

Trump: I’m still winning

Trump did not take kindly to the criticism, and stayed true to his modus operandi of swiftly hitting back when attacked.

“She’s very weak on illegal immigration,” Trump said on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday, dinging Haley on the issue that more than any other has incited the fury of grassroots Republicans against establishment party leaders.

READ: Who said it: Barack Obama or Nikki Haley?

Trump also made it personal, commenting that Haley, often spoken of as a possible GOP vice presidential nominee, was unlikely to find a spot on a ticket he would choose.

“Well, considering I’m leading in the polls by a lot, I wouldn’t say she’s off to a good start” to be his vice presidential candidate, Trump said. “Whoever I pick is also going to be very strong on illegal immigration.”

The businessman-turned-politician also suggested Haley was a hypocrite by saying she would come to him hat in hand for campaign contributions if he was not running.

Will it backfire?

It remains to be seen, however, whether the latest GOP broadside at Trump will be any more effective than the string of attacks leveled by the party’s presidential candidates who have hijacked the hopes of party bosses to frame their 2016 agenda. The history of the turbulent 2016 GOP primary suggests that criticism of Trump by party bosses only serves to deepen the conviction of activists that his brand of outsider politics is what they crave.

Trump is neck-and-neck with Cruz in Iowa, but has a big lead in the state that is next up — New Hampshire, and a new New York Times/CBS News national poll on released Tuesday showed him lapping the field with 36%, ahead of Cruz on 19%. The top candidate seen as battling for the establishment vote in the race, Rubio registered only 11%.

Several conservative pundits predicted following Haley’s address that she had made a mistake by turning on Trump.

CNN commentator Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide, described her response as “GOP self loathing.” Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said on Twitter that Haley had missed her chance to stand with “working people who want borders enforced.”

Radio host Rush Limbaugh wasn’t happy with Haley, either.

“It’s the first time in my life I can remember the response to the State of the Union not going after the president but rather going off the front-runner of, in this case, her own party,” Limbaugh said on his radio show Wednesday. “It’s almost absolute proof of what I have been saying for last couple years now – that the Republican Party’s trying to drive conservatives out of the party.”

Rep. Steve King of Iowa said he would have preferred a different messenger Tuesday night. “I just tried to remember when a principled conservative has been afforded the opportunity to give the rebuttal,” King said when asked if Haley should have given the speech.

The fact that Obama also took aim at The Donald’s rhetoric in similar terms as Haley’s may also help Trump.

“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said Tuesday night. “We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”

RELATED: State of the Union: Barack Obama sells optimism to nervous nation

CNN’s Manu Raju and Dana Bash contributed to this report