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Nikki Haley goes from small-time agitator to credible candidate for S.C. governor

Nikki Haley's base of operations during her runoff campaign for South Carolina governor is a well-worn office in West Columbia.
Nikki Haley's base of operations during her runoff campaign for South Carolina governor is a well-worn office in West Columbia. (Brett Flashnick For The Washington Post)

Ten days later, when a blogger alleged having an "inappropriate relationship" with Haley, Palin called. "I told you this was going to happen," she told Haley. "Hang tough."

Palin's endorsement worked: Haley's poll numbers jumped.

The former Republican governor of Alaska turned out to be more valuable to Haley than her earlier mentor, the current Republican governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford.

Sanford's protege

Early in 2009, when Haley was toying with running for higher office, she visited Sanford in his office. The two sat on a red couch embroidered with gold palmetto trees. Haley recalled asking him, "Do you think South Carolina is ready for a female governor?" Sanford said, "No, but they're ready for you."

Haley entered the race, signing up consultant Jon Lerner, who had worked for Sanford, and campaign veteran Tim Pearson as manager.

A few weeks later, Haley was in Washington courting donors. At the time, everyone in the capital wanted to know the same thing: Where in the world was Mark Sanford? The governor had up and disappeared. His staff reported, not quite believably, that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Haley wound up in an elevator with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R). She introduced herself. "Where's your governor?" a Haley adviser recalled him saying.

Sanford turned up a few days later and confessed to an affair with a woman in Argentina. His protege's campaign appeared doomed. Haley languished in last place. Donations dried up. Reporters asked whether she would drop out.

"You've got to have the fortitude thing," Sanford said in an interview. "You've got to have the willingness to push, the doggedness, and I think she showed that in spades." (So has Sanford, who refused to resign even after his wife left him over the scandal. Term limits kept him from running again.)

So far, "the fortitude thing" has worked out well for Haley. If she wins the runoff, Palin and her other new friends will be there to help her campaign -- and raise enormous sums of money -- in a race against Democrat Vincent Sheheen.

As governor, she would have another chance to settle this business of the secret votes in the Capitol. Haley's effort to shame her colleagues was successful, up to a point. The bill passed the House in March. But it is has gone nowhere in the Senate.

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