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Haley leads Republican governor's race in South Carolina despite sex allegations

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."

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