Image: Nikki Haley, Jenny Sanford
Bruce Smith  /  AP
South Carolina Republican gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley, left, and former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford campaign on Friday in Charleston.
updated 5/14/2010 5:18:32 PM ET 2010-05-14T21:18:32

A rock star sisterhood of sorts is forming around a back-of-the-pack GOP candidate in the race to replace disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

State Rep. Nikki Haley is getting an in-person endorsement from Sarah Palin on Friday and support from Sanford's hugely popular ex-wife, Jenny. The former first lady who moved out of the governor's mansion with the help of her girlfriends last summer now is doing all she can to help Haley move in.

"What better way than to start the day with Jenny Sanford and end it with Sarah Palin," Haley said at an event in Charleston with Sanford on Friday morning. "It's an amazing thing to be with two strong women who have been amazingly impactful in our state and in our nation."

In a Facebook posting, Palin said Haley is "a reformer who fought her own party to protect the interests of the taxpayer." Two years ago, Haley was bounced from a committee overseeing business legislation after she criticized House GOP leaders for passing legislation without roll call votes.

"She's the scrappy underdog in a tough competitive primary," Palin said.

Haley has some backing from tea party activists but also faces three better-known — and better-funded — opponents in a June 8 GOP primary.

At the end of March, Haley had $530,000 in cash, at least a third less than Attorney General Henry McMaster, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

The Palin endorsement buys Haley what she can't afford: a nod from one of the GOP's most luminous figures just as voter attention turns to a race overshadowed for a year by Mark Sanford's revelation last June of an affair with an Argentine woman. He's term-limited and will leave office at the end of the year.

Palin has endorsed only a handful of candidates in governor or U.S. Senate races, including state Rep. Tom Emmer in Minnesota and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in California's U.S. Senate race.

Her endorsement will likely help Haley among conservatives, but Jenny Sanford's may mean more to others in the state.

Video: Sanford: Everybody knows who I was with "I think she brings some credibility and a lot of people respect her opinion," said Karen Watson, 58, of Johns Island. "That's a really valuable endorsement to me."

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Since her husband publicly confessed his affair, Jenny Sanford has won widespread praise for her poise and grace. She wrote the tell-all book "Staying True" and is a frequent guest on talk shows, including Thursday's "Dr. Phil." She and Mark Sanford divorced earlier this year.

Haley, once a Mark Sanford ally, rushed to publicly distance herself from the governor after the scandal but has continued praising much of his conservative policy approach. And she has been effusive in her praise for his ex-wife.

On Friday, Jenny Sanford called Haley a breath of fresh air and said: "Like my former husband Mark Sanford, she actually understands the importance of transparency in government; she understands the importance of fighting for the taxpayers in our state."

South Carolina has never had a female governor and just once elected a female lieutenant governor.

Political scientist Scott Huffmon said Palin and Jenny Sanford's support for Haley is more about her conservative politics than her gender. But the payoff couldn't come at a better time as Haley tries to win enough votes to force a runoff with McMaster, who is regarded as the front-runner.

"This is an incredible amount of free publicity that comes right at the time that primary voters are yawning, stretching and putting up their political antennae," Huffmon said.

Backing from Palin and Jenny Sanford gives Haley a better chance to be heard. But, Huffmon added: "It's still a boys club in South Carolina and she's been fighting to overcome that."

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