Back in 2010, when the governor of South Carolina was merely "Nikki Who?," running behind in a four-person Republican primary with her top supporter mired in scandal, Jeb Bush gave her some advice.
"Everything had blown up and I was trying to figure out what to do," Gov. Nikki Haley said in an interview Saturday with reporters from The Washington Post. "I just asked what he thought I should do, and he said, 'You know, consultants are going to tell you to stay on the phone and raise money. But what I'll tell you is go out and touch every hand you can.'"
Haley followed Bush's counsel, and the rest is history. Later that year, after she was elected, she called Bush, a former Florida governor, for advice on setting up an administration. Then when she tackled education reform, she called again. "Can you save me a couple of steps?" Haley recalled asking Bush. "He said, 'If you do anything, make sure your kids can read.'"
Now it's Bush who will be seeking Haley's help. As he weighs a run for president in 2016, South Carolina is poised to again be the first primary in the South, and Haley figures to be one of the state's prized endorsers.
In the interview, Haley said she has no plans yet to back any candidate. "I think what I'll do is watch," she said. But Haley was particularly complimentary of the governors in the emerging field, including Bush.
“I think that the party would be better off if there were somebody that understood what it meant to get things done," Haley said. "So that primarily has been governors, and it is why I’m a fan of governors. You know, I can’t stand the talk. I can’t stand the political speak. I want somebody that’s going to fight for me. I want somebody that’s going to do something."
Under Haley, South Carolina has dropped the federal Common Core education standards in favor of its own standards. Asked whether Bush's outspoken support for the national benchmarks might be a drag on his candidacy in South Carolina, Haley said it would not be.
"That's something that he'll have to talk about and explain," she said. But, she added, "I don't know if that's going to be as much of a hard cut as some people might think."
Haley assessed the potential candidacy of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a friend and ally. She said Graham had called her to say he was likely to run. "He told me that he wanted to see what Lindsey Graham for president sounded like and that he was going to put his foot in the water," Haley said.
Haley praised Graham's communications skills and foreign policy knowledge but dismissed the notion that the state's senior senator might win the South Carolina primary simply because of his favorite-son status.
"South Carolina won't automatically go to Senator Graham just because he's from South Carolina," she said. "That's just not how our state plays. But I think he'll make a good effort of it, and we'll see what happens."
In 2008 and 2012, Haley endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and during his latter run, she was a prominent surrogate for Romney across the country. But despite her support, Romney lost the South Carolina primary both times. In January, she said, Romney called her to tell her he was thinking about a run in 2016 as well. But before they could schedule a meeting to discuss it further, he announced he would not run.
"I’m still heartbroken that he didn’t win last time," Haley said. "Having said that, it’s a new year, it’s a new day, it’s a new time. We’ve gone through a lot. I think he read the writing on the wall. I think he will forever be to me and a lot of people what could have been, but I think that there’s a place for him to now help that next person and to move it forward."