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S.C. GOP state senator calls president, gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley 'a raghead'

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 6:21 PM

The knock-down-drag-out brawl for South Carolina's Republican gubernatorial nomination just got nastier.

A GOP state senator called front-runner Nikki Haley, the only woman in the race and a daughter of Indian immigrants, "a raghead" on a political talk show Thursday night.

"We already got one raghead in the White House," John M. "Jake" Knotts Jr. said on the Internet talk show "Pub Politics," according to The State newspaper. "We don't need another in the governor's mansion."

Knotts, a supporter of one of Haley's opponents, later apologized and said his comment was made in jest.

After former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) swept into the Palmetto State to endorse Haley a few weeks ago, the state lawmaker has rocketed in the polls to a sizable lead in the four-candidate race. Since then, her opponents and their allies have attacked her personal character relentlessly in the closing days of the campaign. Voters will go the polls Tuesday.

Two Republican operatives have claimed they had sexual encounters with Haley. She has denied both accusations and said she has been faithful to her husband through their 13 years of marriage.

On the talk show Thursday, Knotts discussed Haley's religious upbringing. She was raised as a Sikh, but married a Methodist man and is raising her children as Christians. She has said she attends services of both faiths.

Haley, responding to Knotts's comments after a Thursday campaign stop, told The State: "What the race in 2010 will prove is the goodness of the people of South Carolina, that there [are] fewer people of the Jake Knotts [ilk] and that there are a lot more good, educated people [who] want their voice heard in government."

Knotts is a longtime ally of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, one of Haley's opponents, and has been an antagonist of Gov. Mark Sanford (R) in the legislature. Haley has been one of Sanford's closest allies in Columbia.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd called on Knotts to apologize Thursday night. "The South Carolina Republican Party strongly condemns any use of racial or religious slurs," Floyd said. "Senator Knotts should apologize for his inappropriate comments, so that we can put this unfortunate incident behind us and focus on issues important to moving our state forward."

In a statement to local reporters, Knotts said: "Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like a local political version of 'Saturday Night Live.' Since my intended humorous context was lost in translation, I apologize. I still believe Ms. Haley is pretending to be someone she is not, much as Obama did, but I apologize to both for an unintended slur."

Attorney General Henry McMaster (R), another gubernatorial candidate, issued a statement Friday calling on the other Republicans to "cut this nonsense out right now."

"The behavior of my opponents, their campaigns and their supporters over the last few weeks has not served our state well," McMaster said. "In fact, it's been embarrassing."

Earlier this week, Bauer fired one of his campaign consultants, Larry Marchant, after Marchant told Bauer he had a one-time sexual encounter with Haley in 2008. On Thursday, Bauer challenged Haley to a "lie-detector test" to determine whether she had cheated on her husband. Haley denied Marchant's claim and accused Bauer of "fishing" the story to the media to gin up attention.

Last week, a blogger and former Republican operative, Will Folks, claimed he had a sexual relationship with Haley, which Haley also denied.

The GOP campaign has become the nastiest South Carolina political race in years -- at least since the 2000 presidential primary between George W. Bush and John McCain, who fell victim to a whisper campaign alleging falsely that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock multiracial child.

All of this has Democrats watching from the sidelines, almost giddy.

"If these guys keep behaving like juvenile delinquents, then we'll elect a Democrat in November here," said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state's Democratic Party. "It's a no-holds-barred, eye-gouging free-for-all. We've never seen it like this before. This is the worse it's ever been. Ain't it grand?"

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