Nikki Haley: Fresh face for South Carolina or more of the same?

Polls suggested Nikki Haley was the front-runner heading into Tuesday's South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary. But controversy is already hounding the avowed reformer – something voters had hoped would be leaving office with current Gov. Mark Sanford.

By , Staff writer

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    South Carolina Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (r.) is joined by her husband, Michael, in Greenville, S.C., May 24, as she denies allegations about an affair.
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It wasn't supposed to be like this for South Carolina, a state clamoring to shed the salacious taint of lovelorn Gov. Mark Sanford.

But that heartfelt hope has broken down as a feisty female pol named Nikki Haley – a stiletto-heeled Republican of Indian descent – has pulled ahead of her opponents in the polls in the run-up to today's South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary. Allegations of multiple affairs and even ethnic jokes have been tossed her way, potentially turning what was supposed to be the beginning of a cleansing new era into more of the same.

Former Alaska governor and "tea party" doyenne Sarah Palin has endorsed Ms. Haley. Ms. Palin called allegations from two Columbia operatives that they had amorous relationships with Haley "made-up nonsense."

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For her part, Haley, who is married and has two kids, has said that, if elected, she'll step down from the governorship if they're proven true. So far, no hard evidence of the supposed trysts has surfaced.

The outsider

Haley has capitalized on the state's hunger for a new image perhaps more than any other candidate. She is the outsider, both in appearance and persona – an avowed reformer.

Internal polling suggests the affair allegations may even have helped her, casting her as the victim of a corrupt and at times libidinous state capital culture that residents distrust. Her campaign network is far smaller and less connected those of the other three candidates: Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, and US Rep. Gresham Barrett.

And last Thursday, she was targeted again as state Sen. Jake Knotts, a Republican, said on a radio show, "We already got one raghead in the White House. We don't need another in the governor's mansion." Mr. Knotts apologized, saying it was a joke.

South Carolina's seamy turn

The Haley affair allegation is only the latest in a parade of recent sex-related headlines in South Carolina, where Republican politics is usually of the "put up your dukes" variety and where the social arena is bedrock Bible Belt.

Last year, Governor Sanford disappeared allegedly to hike the Appalachian Trail and instead turned up five days later at Atlanta's Hartfield-Jackson Airport fresh from a visit with a paramour in Argentina. Sanford survived possible impeachment and paid back some travel funds listed in an ethics complaint. He and his wife are seeking divorce.

That affair came alongside news of a conservative state school board member writing erotica under an alias on the Internet; state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom carrying on an affair with superintendent of education candidate Kelly Payne; and questions about gubernatorial candidate Bauer's sexual orientation.

"Why, in this is a very conservative, Bible Belt state, have we got a Republican Party wracked by scandals involving sex, sex, sex?” South Carolina Democratic strategist Dick Harpootlian said to Lloyd Grove, of the Daily Beast. “I think it’s simple physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So what we see is that the more morally strident they become in the public square, the more debauchery we see behind the curtain."

Haley's credentials

Haley, a six-year state representative from Lexington County, has made her name pushing reforms for the legislature, including term limits and roll-call votes. In 2004, she ousted the longest-serving House member in South Carolina in its most conservative district.

A protégé of Sanford, Haley's opposition to the federal stimulus package plays to an anti-incumbent furor, political scientists say. In South Carolina, the winner of the Republican primary often sails to victory in the general election.

If her gubernatorial bid succeeds, Haley would become the second child of Indian immigrants to helm a Southern state, following Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.

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