Even in a state that's accustomed to two-fisted politics, this year's Republican race for governor stands out. As the contenders barreled across South Carolina in a mad frenzy before Tuesday's primary, they confronted at every turn the salacious accusations of adultery swirling around Nikki Haley, the woman who has rocketed to the lead.
Lt. Gov. André Bauer, carrying a backpack stuffed with trinkets to give to children, arrived at a diner in rural Union County to offer hope of replacing the shuttered Disney factory down the road. Yet he faced, and deflected, questions about his ex-campaign consultant who alleged an affair with Haley. Then, climbing into an RV shrink-wrapped with his likeness, he was off to the next county and more questions.
Attorney General Henry McMaster, stumping with a former governor at a brunch spot in Greenville, cast himself as the only adult in a field of adolescents. He asked Susan Bailey and her girlfriends for their votes, but moments later they confessed to a reporter that they had recently decided, over prayer, to go with Haley. "Not because she's a she," said Bailey, 55, a homemaker. "She hasn't bowed down. She hasn't gotten angry. She can handle it like a gentleman, but she's a lady."
And when Rep. J. Gresham Barrett strode into Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville for red-meat politicking, ready to talk about his Arizona-style immigration plan, a man at the first table asked the question that has sucked up so much oxygen here.
"Do you believe she's been, what is it, unfaithful?" he asked.
"No, sir, I don't," Barrett said, shaking the man's hand and quickly moving on.
From the Bible-thumping Upcountry to the breezy beaches, Palmetto State Republicans have become transfixed by allegations in a campaign that has devolved into perhaps the nastiest brawl in a generation. Haley has fended off unsubstantiated claims from two political operatives that she had extramarital affairs with them. She has swatted away remarks from a state senator who called her a "raghead." And Haley, every bit as scrappy as she is steely, has been running circles around her opponents — all while propped up in stiletto heels.
The other candidates have bigger names and longer résumés, but Haley, the only woman among them, built a sizable lead by making sport of busting the old-boy fraternity that she says dominates, even corrupts, South Carolina politics.
"When you turn around and threaten their power and you threaten their money, they turn around and push back," Haley, a fast-talking and polished campaigner, told a crowd here on Saturday night. "But what they don't understand is I have a strong faith, I have a strong spine, and I have a strong husband that puts on a military uniform every day."
The couple of hundred Republicans huddled outside an old barn along the railroad tracks in downtown Conway erupted, just as her supporters did after she delivered the same line 230 miles west at a hot-wing bar in Greenville the night before, leaving political observers to wonder whether all the mudslinging is only cementing Haley's popularity.
Haley's campaign says internal polls suggest she has maintained, if not widened, her lead. A few weeks ago, languishing in fourth place, she hoped to just make the expected June 22 runoff. But now she is talking about winning outright with more than 50 percent.
Haley, 38, has been a state representative since 2004 — long enough, she says, to know the problems but not to be "part of the fraternity party." An accountant, she promises a take-no-prisoners approach to the state budget.
For years, Haley has sought new laws requiring term limits, financial disclosures and roll-call votes for lawmakers. She has faced resistance in Columbia, but she pledges to keep pushing. "The arrogance, the corruption, the ignorance has to stop," she said.
She was elevated by an endorsement from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Herself no stranger to scandal, Palin — who has taken to calling herself the "mama grizzly" — has defended Haley, chalking it all up in robo-calls to "made-up nonsense."
"She is like Sarah Palin," Trudy Martin, 71, a retired nurse, said of Haley. "Sarah told them to take a hike — the oil companies, the crooked Republicans. Nikki can do the same."
The race wasn't supposed to end like this. After Gov. Mark Sanford (R) tearfully admitted infidelity after visiting his lover in Buenos Aires last summer, the race to succeed him was expected to be a serious affair. The four candidates spent months jockeying to prove their anti-Obama, anti-government, conservative-reformer bona fides.
Yet in the closing weeks, the Haley allegations have been the driving issue, even provoking questions in the final debate.
First came blogger Will Folks, a former Sanford spokesman, accusing her of having had "an inappropriate physical relationship" with him. Then came Larry Marchant, a lobbyist and former Bauer consultant, claiming his own one-night sexual encounter with her. Bauer, the lieutenant governor, challenged Haley to a polygraph test.
Haley has vehemently denied each claim, and Folks and Marchant have offered no evidence. She said that if any surfaced after she was elected governor, she would resign.
"I don't know what they served at the annual Silver Elephant Dinner for Republicans," said Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman, "but it must've been a combination of some hallucinogenic and Viagra in the punch, because they're rutting like bull elephants."
Now enter Jake Knotts, a rabble-rousing Republican state senator, who ruminated Thursday on Haley's Indian heritage on a talk show and concluded: "We already got one raghead in the White House. We don't need another in the governor's mansion." He later apologized and said his remark was only in jest.
This is a spectacle rarely seen in politics — even here in bare-knuckled South Carolina, where in the 2000 presidential primary John McCain fell victim to a whisper campaign alleging falsely that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock multiracial child.
"Southern politics are always colorful, but I haven't seen in a long time, maybe in my lifetime, it so visceral, so nasty, so embarrassing," said former governor David Beasley.
The other night in Conway, it was lost on few that Haley was speaking from a stage named after the legendary senator Strom Thurmond, a onetime segregationist who might have been shocked to see this daughter of Indian immigrants as the favorite to become South Carolina's first female governor.
When Barrett campaigned at the Ham House, Bill Moore said that he would never consider voting for Haley. "I don't know any woman that I'd vote for governor," Moore, 85, a retired textile worker, said as he cleaned his plate of grits and biscuits.
Haley, asked in an interview whether this state is ready for her kind of change, said: "South Carolina is ready for Nikki Haley. . . . It's not about gender. It's not about ethnicity. It's about wanting somebody that's going to fight for the people, and I'm that person."