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Gubernatorial candidate Haley withstands S.C. whispering campaign

Nikki Haley cruised to an easy victory in the Republican primary for governor in South Carolina, making her one of the GOP's newest rising stars.

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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- There's a whisper campaign going on in South Carolina this month, but it's not what you might think. The whisper is that the political smear tactics that this state made famous don't seem to be working this time around.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when two separate allegations of adultery were directed at Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for governor. Voters either didn't believe the unsubstantiated claims or didn't care; Haley won 49.5 percent of the vote in the GOP primary. She and the runner-up, Rep. Gresham Barrett, will face each other Tuesday in a runoff.

Last week, more unseemliness: Some of Haley's critics, including at least one county GOP chairman and two pastors, questioned whether the candidate, a first-generation Indian American who was raised in the Sikh tradition, is really a Christian, as she says she is. It's a touchy topic for South Carolina, where race, religion and negative campaign tactics have a long, uncomfortable history in politics. It's also touchy for Republicans, who are trying to get past their image among many Americans that theirs is the less tolerant party.

"This is the sad truth in politics: If you want to really make something stick on somebody, you make it very negative and you whisper it," said South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who ran against Haley in the primary for governor but is supporting her in the runoff. "That's what's happening to Nikki right now. There's no basis for it. There's no reason for it. It's politics at its worst. I wish we could eliminate it from the scene, and I hope that voters will understand that that's what's going on."

Haley says she converted to Methodism at age 24. She, her husband, Michael, and their two children attend a Methodist church in Lexington, S.C.

But in speeches and e-mail campaigns, the detractors, who include a state lawmaker, a local Republican official and at least two local pastors who support Haley's opponent, are spreading the view that she is concealing her true faith.

They recall that six years ago, she was recognized in an Indian newspaper as the first Sikh elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. They note that when she ran for the legislature in 2004, she described her marriage in a Methodist church but did not mention that she and her husband also participated in a Sikh wedding ceremony, and that she continues to attend Sikh services with her family a few times a year.

They also point to changes on her campaign Web site, which they assert is evidence that she is trying to reposition herself as a strong Christian. Earlier this year, before she became well known as a candidate, the site made reference to "God Almighty." That has been changed to "Christ."

"Haley can't seem to make up her mind about her faith," said Phillip Bowers, chairman of the Pickens County GOP, in an e-mail to local Republicans last week. Reached by telephone Friday, Bowers said: "It finally got to the point where I ought to let the party know about the inconsistencies in the story."

Pastor Ray Popham of Oasis Church International in Aiken told CNN: "I think she needs to be straight up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front."

And Tony Beam, an interim pastor at Mount Creek Baptist Church in Greenville, asked listeners on his radio program recently: "Is Nikki Haley being honest about her faith?

Others have been less diplomatic. State Sen. "Jakie" Knotts, who became infamous this month for referring to Haley as a "raghead," asked this question in a local television interview: "Have you ever asked her if she believes in Jesus Christ as her lord and savior, and that he died on the cross for her sins? Have you ever asked her that?"


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