On a recent morning, cheers echoed inside a small gym as Nikki Haley bounded before Orangeburg middle-schoolers and quizzed boisterous students on the state bird. She was more like a fun mom than a governor, until she got quiet. Fallen from favor after 11 months in office, Haley let the group of mostly African American students know that she understood politics at the playground level.

She widened her brown eyes when describing her childhood in nearby Bamberg as the daughter of a Sikh businessman who wears a turban. “Every one of you has seen someone who has been made fun of for the way they look, for the way they dress, for the way they talk,” the governor said. In third grade, she said, her peers told her to make a choice: “We’re not going to play with you until you pick one.” A side, they meant: Was she black, or was she white?

On Friday morning, Haley revealed she would back former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s candidacy, as she did in 2008. But the question remained whether her endorsement will matter in her own state.

Within her party, Haley eludes factions, slips confines — to the point that former allies wonder whether her main agenda is her own advancement. Tea party activists, who helped her get elected, and business-first pragmatists, who helped her get staffed up as governor, doubt that she’s one of them. Instead, Haley promotes herself as a party of one, yanking her stubborn state toward new days and new ways. Her ways.

In person, she cuts an indefatigable and glamourous figure. She eschews a Church Lady mien for something more Real Housewife: fit, attractive and encased in suits that stop just below the elbow and just above the knee. And she says often how her job is sales, selling corporate chief executives on South Carolina with many lures.

The morning after her Orangeburg school visit, Haley sat upright with legs crossed in her ornate Statehouse offices as she boasted that her state is different simply because she’s running it. The Confederate battle flag still waves outside the building, and yet she doesn’t want it taken down and doesn’t worry that any CEO she solicits to hire South Carolinians will balk at this Civil War vestige.

“They don’t have to ask that question because you are looking at a state that just elected a 38-year-old Indian female,” she said. “That says everything we need it to say.”

Haley rat-a-tatted through her seductive pitch: “What I’m saying is, if you come to South Carolina, the cost of doing business is going to be low here. We are going to make sure that you have a loyal, willing workforce and we are going to continue to be one of the lowest union-participation states in the country. And, by the way, here’s my personal cell number, and the second that something goes wrong, call me directly.” And they do.

Early in Haley’s underdog campaign last year, no one was returning her calls, she said. She faced three opponents. She was yoked to a sullied ex-governor (“I was seen as ‘Sanford in a dress,’ ” she said of the comparisons to Mark Sanford, who didn’t seek reelection after admitting adultery). Her own semi-scandalous sideshow erupted and abated in the summer of 2010, when her onetime campaign consultant alleged (and never proved) that years before, the two had had a messy affair.

Now, a year after her narrow win, the South Carolina governor is withering in the polls, with only one-third of voters surveyed approving of her job performance — and barely half of all Republicans polled. And yet Haley sees the Republican Party’s top presidential prospects bounding to her doorstep with the same ardor once reserved for then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose backing was crucial in Haley’s election. Haley has played “hostess” (her word) as she welcomed for overnight visits Rep. Michele Bachmann, Newt and Callista Gingrich and Ann Romney.

To be a player in the presidential derby could raise her above the state-level fracas. But Romney will now embark on a tour of South Carolina beside a governor whose popularity has cratered. “If I were a candidate for the Republican primary,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, “based on those poll numbers, I’d rather get the flu than get her endorsement.”

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South Carolina politicians can be mean — envy mixed with hunger, as the state’s financial woes turn simple conflicts into dogfights for scraps.

In July, Haley received a tongue-lashing on the floor of the state Senate from the majority leader (a fellow Republican) over public television budgeting. The dispute was over some rethinking of procedure, but it sounded like plain ol’ pique.

Mostly, Haley is wresting back power for her office, when the balance has long favored the state lawmakers. Haley started a full-on fracas with Darla Moore, a philanthropist whom the governor bounced from the University of South Carolina board. The reason: unreturned phone calls, postponed meetings and a distinct sense that the governor needed to show who worked for whom. To regain the upper hand, Moore offered $5 million for a new building if the state ponied up matching funds. No, thank you, said Haley.

Was the new governor petty to cast aside a key donor? Or was she showing that pay-to-play was no longer the way to gain status or favor in her administration? The naive-or-shrewd debate persists.

Haley has appointed loyalists to other boards, most notably a business development panel that recently approved a plan for Savannah to deepen its port. Haley accepted donations from Georgia lawyers connected to the dispute, and thus cries of cronyism echoed in the Palmetto State, where a rivalry between Charleston and Savannah over Southeast shipping is seen as a fight for the future. Savannah won this round, but Haley said she won environmental protections for the river the states share. And that Charleston needs to compete as a port, not merely undermine its rival.

A fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, applauded her handling of the port dispute as forward-thinking. Deal, the senator noted, is the operative word: It’s the surname of Haley’s Georgia counterpart, Nathan Deal, and as Capitol Hill earmarking ends, state executives are going to have to wheedle in the way that senators long have.

“She’s had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her,” Graham said. “And she’s very good at not getting distracted.”

Haley’s immediate task is to push down the number of unemployed, 11 percent of the state’s residents. It’s clearly her chosen measurement for her own job performance, and her prospects brighten as employment climbs. She trumpets 9,000 as the total number of jobs announced since she took office, though many positions won’t be filled just yet.

In her many pep talks to voters (and cameras), Haley notes that in her teen years, she did the books for her family’s clothing company in tiny Bamberg. Her bottom-line focus continues with bigger enterprises, as the governor repeatedly drops the names of companies now in South Carolina: Boeing, Bridgestone, Continental Tire, TD Bank, even the maker of an asthma medication. Her business development team, led by the Charleston newspaper’s former managing editor, has done good work, even Harpootlian, her Democratic detractor, acknowledged.

Haley knows how to play down her high-flying job creation role, as South Carolinians tend to appreciate down-home leaders. At a Kiwanis luncheon in Summerville, a businessman lobbed a question that she gets a lot: Why did she spend state money to attend the Paris Air Show last summer? She explained that she and her husband each had a full slate of meetings with business leaders who could bring jobs to South Carolina, as aviation giant Boeing has recently done. “I did not see the Eiffel Tower,” Haley told her questioner, using a well-trod dismissal. “I think I bought a snow globe back for my child and that was it.”

Her allies credit her for going wherever she can appeal to the T-Rexes of the business world, be it Paris or any other destination. “Listen, you’re not going to take ’em to the Waffle House to close the deal, okay?” said GOP state Sen. Greg Ryberg, “Any time she gets attention because of being in New York or in Washington or wherever, that sheds positive light and it’s great for the state of South Carolina, where we have had enough bad press.”

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Even in a small town in South Carolina, Haley’s persona has a kind of international clout. Recently, state Rep. Ralph Norman, a fellow Republican, asked Haley to visit a tiny family business that exported elastics from a tiny town called Clover. “You name the time and date” came the reply. “The family, ironically, was doing some business in India and took her picture and sent it on to their clients,” Norman recalled. “That’s the kind of girl she is: If it’s economic development, she’s there.”

She’s also the kind who doesn’t mind that she still gets called girl. “It’s okay because they truly mean well,” she drawled. “What you have to look at is the fact that this is a Southern culture that has great people that just allowed me to do a job I love. . . . They can call me girl, lady, Indian, whatever.”

Her Indian heritage is crucial to her ambition; she solicits donations from Indian American groups nationwide, including in Washington. But she plays up her complexity: She talked movingly about her conversion to Christianity and next, about her passion for Joan Jett. She has jumped on the national anti-bullying bandwagon, but insisted that her efforts are separate from those of gay activists promoting tolerance among kids. In the same discussion of the hustle of business development, she talked up her maternal duties: Friday nights are off limits to politics, she said, so her two children can choose pizza or whatever for the evening meal, which recently was followed by a Taylor Swift concert.

Haley is unabashed about using her identity to push herself higher, above the muck of the usual conflicts and toward more national debates. Haley recruited a savvy adviser — Christian Soura, who has an eyebrower-raiser on his résumé: He served under Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who once ran the national Democratic Party.

“I call him Mr. Fix-It,” Haley said, who has made Soura her deputy chief of staff. “Whether we’re dealing with pensions or whether we’re dealing with the budget or whether we’re dealing with certain legislation, we go and we sit down and go okay, how do we get there?”

It’s Soura’s skills that are most often cited among lobbyists and activists in the capital when noting Haley’s staunchness, especially during her many news conferences. On Fox News, she has talked tough on Boeing’s behalf in its now-resolved labor dispute. In firm tones reminiscent of New Jersey’s Chris Christie or New York’s Rudy Giuliani, she ordered police to clear the encampments of Occupy Columbia protesters while insisting that she welcomed their ideas, only in the daylight hours and without public urination. “Bring your sign. Bring your voice. But don’t bring your mattress,” she declared.

Each national party is grooming political talent who can represent youth and diversity for national roles in Cabinets and even on presidential tickets, and Barack Obama’s electoral success so early in his career suggests that no time is too soon to capi­tal­ize on a national profile. The fast track has never moved faster.

And with a book launch planned for April, Haley carefully associates herself with the GOP’s other emerging leaders. “If you look at the governors, it’s such a cool group of governors because they all understand that this is not about reelection; it’s about results. We’re trying to prove to the people that things can be done when Washington’s in chaos,” Haley said, citing Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia and Rick Scott of Florida. “All these people that are doing great things. And yes, we do talk.” Haley has even challenged the latter two to cheerful bets over the outcomes of college football games.

Haley mentioned in passing her recent phone call to Florida’s former governor, Jeb Bush, whom she has often rung up “for personal advice” since she met him in Idaho at a Republican Governors Association meeting.

Bush recalled their first meeting, over coffee in Sun Valley, and how “I was impressed with her for sure.” He knew, if she prevailed, she would then encounter “a crazy legislative system” and “the weakest form of governorship constitutionally in the country.” But he assured her that governors can learn to speak plainly and “create strategies around a set of ideas” — in her case job growth, in the face of a jobless rate that is worse than the national average. His advice is occasional, and she’s not the only candidate he counseled that day, but he did foresee a bright future. “I think Nikki Haley will prove to be an effective governor,” he said. “And effective governors have a chance to move on to other things if they want to.”

Haley tells reporters that she has no intention of being anyone’s running mate. In fact, the carping has become boring, she sighed. “Look, the press this past weekend said I don’t talk on my cellphone long enough. It’s like, ‘STOP,’ ” Haley said. It reminded her of a conversation she had with Sarah Palin, who came to South Carolina on Haley’s behalf at a crucial campaign juncture.

“The best lesson I learned from her was just in a car after leaving the rally,” Haley recalled. “She said, ‘You’re going to do well. And when you do, they’re gonna come after you.’ And she said, ‘It’s never gonna stop.’ ” Indeed, her ex-consultant hounds her daily with critical posts on a widely followed news-and-sports Web site. Asked about whether the days when sex allegations overtook the campaign were her darkest, she shook her head vigorously: “I will tell you: The more they came at me, the more they motivated me to fight.”

And as a dealmaker who must get past local underminers before she gets any political promotion, Haley has decided on a governing style. “Forceful with a smile. Forceful with a smile,” she said, describing her mantra under fire. “They always laugh because I can undercut somebody and smile the whole way doing it.”