By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; A01
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?"
Asked to respond at her appearance Friday with 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Haley demurred, saying she is focused on the issues.
"I think that the people of the state of South Carolina rose above it, and that says a lot about the people of this state. And I don't think we need to give it any more thought."
Bowers said he was motivated by his own interest and was not asked to push the topic by Barrett's campaign team. Yet there is a widespread assumption within the state's political set that Barrett's team is promoting the story.
Robert Hughes, a Barrett spokesman, denied that the campaign has been involved. "This is an election that has been filled with ridiculous innuendos and accusations, and this is yet another," Hughes wrote in a statement. "Gresham Barrett is the only candidate in the race who hasn't run a negative ad, and has been focused on the issues important to South Carolina voters the entire campaign."
South Carolina has a long, bitter history of racial and religious smears in campaigns. In 1978, the future Republican governor, Carroll Campbell, targeted Democrat Max Heller, who was Jewish, with a push-poll that asked : "Would you vote for a Jew who did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?"
In 2000, local strategists for George W. Bush's campaign in the GOP presidential primary were widely accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against John McCain, including false rumors that he had fathered a black daughter out of wedlock and that he supported a tax on charitable contributions to churches.
"In 2000 against McCain, they had this e-mail chain and telephone chain going through the churches," said Richard Quinn, who worked for the McCain campaigns in 2000 and 2008 and for a gubernatorial candidate this year. "They went through the churches, recruited ministers and scared some of the fundamentalist ministers by demonizing McCain. It created quite a buzz in the faith community, and it was just incredible how well it worked. We just fell real hard and real fast."
That doesn't appear to be happening to Haley. Her campaign views her lead as virtually insurmountable heading into Tuesday's runoff, and she continues to draw enthusiastic crowds .
"I think the 49 1/2 -percent figure that Nikki Haley garnered is a pretty clear indication that the people of South Carolina want to focus on the key issues," said Romney, appearing with Haley at the College of Charleston Friday, a few feet from a marble plaque celebrating the education of the "sons and daughters" of Africa. He continued: "The distractions are not distractions anymore."
If true, that could be good news for Romney should he run for president again; his Mormon faith was described as a liability in South Carolina in 2008. The state's prominence in presidential primary politics -- it is among the four "early" states on the calendar in 2012 -- means the results here can have lasting effects. Romney placed fourth in South Carolina in 2008, behind McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.
Haley's support from Christian conservatives such as Sarah Palin, who endorsed her, might have helped to inoculate her against those who question her faith. It could also be that even in South Carolina, a candidate's race and religion are no longer as important to voters as they once were.
"She represents a conservative movement -- a fresh, strong, energetic, positive conservative movement," McMaster, the attorney general, said. "The [primary] results were remarkable. There's a new day dawning for South Carolina. We have an opportunity to be an example for the rest of the country."