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Nikki Haley steps in for a raspy Rubio and steps out as a voice for anti-Trump Republicans

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) waits to be introduced by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at a campaign event at the InterContinental Hotel on Feb. 29 in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

ATLANTA — Marco Rubio’s voice was hoarse. Nikki Haley’s was not.

So it was the 44-year-old South Carolina governor, not the 44-year-old Florida senator, who gave most of the remarks at a rally here Monday afternoon, taking Rubio’s latest caustic riffs about Donald Trump and making them her own.

Linking the Republican front-runner to the Ku Klux Klan protesters who once camped outside of her state’s Capitol? Check. Comparing Trump to a red-faced schoolyard bully? Done.

"I have to tell you, Donald Trump is everything I taught my children not to do in kindergarten,” Haley said, standing alongside Rubio.

Haley added that she also taught her two young children to defend themselves: “When a bully hits you, you hit that bully right back!”

The attendees gathered in a ballroom at the InterContinental hotel — mostly well-dressed businesspeople on lunch break in this city’s affluent Buckhead district — roared.

Here was a Republican governor, a favorite of the Republican establishment, taking rhetorical uppercuts at the candidate they see as an uncouth cancer on their party. Chants of “Marco! Marco!” filled the air.

“We’ve got two presidential candidates who are under investigation: Hillary Trump,” Haley said later as the crowd of over 1,500 people cheered.

“That even cracks me up,” Haley said.

Haley’s fiery speech on the eve of the Super Tuesday contests captured Rubio’s candidacy at the moment: increasingly personal in its attacks on Trump and quickly becoming the main vessel for mainstream Republicans but far from a sure bet for the nomination.

“Now let’s get serious,” Haley implored, ticking through a list of Trump’s past business projects that have drawn controversy.

“We’ve seen it with Trump Vodka, we’ve seen it with Trump mortgage, we’ve seen it with all of his Trump endeavors. And right now he’s being sued for fraud with Trump University. Every single one of them has failed,” Haley said.  “Now he wants to run for president. This is not a game. We are not a project.”

But it was Haley’s reference to the racially motivated killings last year in Charleston, S.C., that hushed them, coming a day after Trump wavered on disavowing the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. (Trump had done so last week.)

In the aftermath of the massacre, in which nine African Americans were fatally shot during a Bible study event, Haley led the push to take down the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol grounds. She recalled the protests about that effort.

“The KKK came to South Carolina from out of state to protest,” Haley said. “We saw and looked true hate in the eyes last year in Charleston. I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not part of our party, not who we are.”

Again the audience erupted, waving signs as Haley spoke.

Haley ended her case against Trump by citing her own background: the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India. She said Trump’s message was counter to the values they instilled in her and which she believes are the GOP’s core.

“They knew there was love and acceptance in this country,” she said.

Eventually, Rubio took the microphone and gave a raspy, brief and urgent speech about the need for his supporters to turn out Tuesday. “Tomorrow you get to choose what kind of party we’re going to be in the 21st century,” he said.

Rubio then warned against falling for Trump, associating him with demagogues from years past: “There has never been a great movement in human history that has been led by anger and by fear.”

He pledged, too, to soldier on in the 2016 race regardless of whether Trump sweeps Tuesday.

“I will go to all 50 states and every territory. I will continue to speak out until I literally have no voice left,” Rubio said. “I will go anywhere and speak to anyone before I let a con artist get a hold of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, endorses U.S. Senator Marco Rubio for White House nomination. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)