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)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Nikki Haley, the would-be Republican governor of South Carolina, has met many well-known people lately who want to be her friend. One of them is Sarah Palin, who enthusiastically endorsed her. Another is Mitt Romney, who is coming down here next week to try to persuade voters to back her in the June 22 runoff that will decide the GOP nominee. All this friendly attention is something new for Haley. Until a few months ago, she had succeeded in politics in part by choosing the right enemies.

As a state legislator, Haley made herself one of the least popular politicians in the Capitol by introducing a bill that would require elected officials to disclose publicly how they vote on legislation. South Carolina is one of the few states that let lawmakers do so in secret. This allows them the luxury of voting, pain-free, to give themselves perks, such as the generous retirement benefits they approved in 2008.

"I was disgusted," Haley said. "That was an arrogance that I just wasn't going to stand for. It was an embarrassing moment for the Republican Party. And I knew I had to fix it."

There may have been more than an element of calculation in her effort. She traveled all over the state slamming fellow Republicans for their lack of transparency, and drawing plenty of attention to herself along the way. She argued for term limits and tougher financial disclosure rules. When, as payback, House leaders stripped Haley of her subcommittee chairmanship, she drew the notice of "tea party" activists looking for an anti-establishment candidate for governor. She finished far ahead of her three Republican rivals, winning 49 percent of the vote, and is the favorite in the runoff against Rep. J. Gresham Barrett.

Now Haley, who has already endured some of the grimier political attacks in a grimy political year, must make the transition from small-time agitator to credible candidate for governor. Many South Carolinians who were not following the primary race still know her only as the candidate who gives speeches in stiletto heels with leopard-print detail, the one accused -- without evidence -- of having had affairs with two different men. Others heard of her for the first time this month when a Republican state senator called Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, a "raghead."

'You can't trust anyone'

At 38, Haley displays the wariness of a politician who senses there's always another ambush waiting. "You can't trust anyone," she said. "This is a business, and it's all about money and power. If you want to keep yourself clean of all of it, you have to keep your circle small and you have to keep your goals and ideas big."

Haley is friendly, and funny in a generic way; yet she keeps her politics from becoming too personal. She puts big decisions on hold for 24 hours, she said, "to take the emotion out of it." Her inner circle includes only two campaign advisers and her husband, Michael, a full-time National Guardsman. She still handles many of the details of her schedule, sleeps just a few hours a night and clicks out torrents of e-mail on her BlackBerry at all hours.

Haley says she wasn't one of those kids who dreamed of becoming president. "I always laughed at the people who were in student government," she said, sitting in her campaign headquarters, a laptop open on her desk. (In spare moments, she likes to check the comments on her Facebook page.)

Her base of operations is a worn-out office, donated by a supporter, with dated wood paneling and scuffed-up furniture. "Look at how '70s it is," Haley said with a laugh during a recent interview. "We don't have the big office and the big staff and all that stuff. But I love that. This is me."

Haley's attacks on the party caught Palin's attention last summer. A fan sent Palin a YouTube clip of the candidate speaking at a July 4 tea party rally. "Who is that?" Palin asked, according to a Haley adviser. "I want to help her."

Palin kept an eye on Haley's progress and then flew last month to Columbia, where she appeared on the steps of the Capitol with Haley and gave the candidate her blessing.

In private, Palin warned Haley about the political establishment. "They're going to come after you," Palin told the candidate, a Haley adviser recalled.

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