Inside the Capital Beltway, the race for the Republican nomination for president has been cast in recent days as a showdown between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

But in Columbia, S. C., it’s more of a courtship — between Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).

Bachmann has repeatedly made known her admiration for Haley, who has cultivated a loyal following among tea partyers and other conservative Republicans for her sharp critiques of President Obama’s policies.

The feeling, apparently, is mutual. For the second time this year, Haley on Sunday hosted Bachmann for an overnight stay at the governor’s mansion. The two women dined together as well, Bachmann campaign spokesman Alice Stewart confirmed.

Haley has not said yet whom she will support for president, but she has said that she is likely to endorse someone — and probably before the end of the year. Her nod could prove valuable in an early primary state that follows closely on the heels of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. South Carolina is seen as a particularly critical state because, since 1980, every winner here has gone on to win the Republican nomination.

That fact helps explain why Bachmann is not the only contender seeking Haley’s support; Romney campaigned for Haley when she ran for governor last year. But Haley does seem to be showing a little more love for Bachmann than the others. Haley made a surprise appearance at a Bachmann town hall with Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) last month in North Charleston. And she has been quite direct in her view that Romney needs to explain his support for a health-care overhaul in Massachusetts that became the basis for Obama’s plan.

In addition, a Haley endorsement of Bachmann could bite into Perry’s tea-party support and reverse the Minnesotan’s slip in the standings since she won the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa last month.

Bachmann’s latest stay at the South Carolina governor’s mansion came on the eve of Perry’s town hall in Myrtle Beach Monday morning — and also in advance of Sen. Jim DeMint’s presidential forum in Columbia on Monday afternoon.

Haley has said the invitation to the mansion extends to all candidates.