A Wild, Rumor-Filled S.C. Gubernatorial Contest

fromWFAE

In the days leading up to Tuesday's gubernatorial primary in South Carolina, allegations are flying fast and furious. The GOP front-runner, Nikki Haley, has had to fight back claims from several men that she cheated on her husband. It's just one of the many wrinkles in the race to find a successor to Mark Sanford.

Julie Rose reports for member station WFAE.

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Heated elections have a way of getting ugly in the final hours, or just bizarre. Tomorrow's Republican primary for South Carolina governor is both.

As Julie Rose reports from member station WFAE, a lot is on the line. The winner of the primary stands a good chance of being the next governor of the solidly Republican state.

JULIE ROSE: Infidelity ended South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's political career and gave us a new euphemism for sneaking off to see your lover, also known as hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Accusations of infidelity now pressure the woman who wants to replace Governor Sanford - Republican Nikki Haley.

State Representative NIKKI HALEY (Republican, Gubernatorial Candidate): I don't know how more clear I can be. I have been absolutely faithful to my husband for 13 years.

ROSE: That was Haley late last week on WVOC radio in Columbia.

Heading into tomorrow's primary, Haley's campaign has been on a roll, winning over Tea Party activists and the endorsement of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the four-way Republican race. And then...

Unidentified Man: First on WYFF News 4, a political bombshell...

ROSE: A blogger who used to work for Haley announced they'd had an affair three years ago. Days later, another political consultant claimed he and Haley had a one-night stand. Haley continues to deny all the allegations and, when pressed by a radio host, said she would step down as governor if the claims were ever proven.

At the moment she's doing what many politicians in her situation have done.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

St. Rep. HALEY: I've seen the dark side of our state's politics. And I...

ROSE: Haley's latest TV ad features her family prominently.

St. Rep. HALEY: Im Nikki Haley and this is my husband, Michael...

Professor SCOTT HUFFMON (Political Science, Winthrop University): Dirty politics is par for the course down here.

ROSE: Scott Huffmon is a political scientist for South Carolina's Winthrop University. He says politics here are so notorious that people were shocked but not surprised when a state legislator recently used an ethnic slur to slam Haley's Indian-American heritage. And sex scandals are certainly not unusual either, but Huffmon says the Haley situation is strange because of the men making the claims. Take the political blogger Will Folks.

Prof. HUFFMON: No one, and I really mean no one, has been a supporter of Nikki Haley running for Governor longer than Will Folks. Will Folks was saying this woman should be governor long before anyone ever had thought seriously about that.

ROSE: Folks says he only confessed the affair because it was about to be leaked to the media by one of Haley's opponents. But when she denied his claims, Folks started aggressively trying to prove them on his blog. He's released phone records that show hundreds of late-night calls with Haley when he worked for her in 2007. She says she often calls staffers late at night.

Haley's other alleged lover, Larry Marchant, isn't offering any proof of his claims.

Mr. LARRY MARCHANT (Republican Lobbyist): You know, I don't know how you prove a one-night stand. You know, did I take pictures of us in the hotel room together? No, I didn't. It happened.

ROSE: Marchant is a powerful lobbyist and longtime ally of Nikki Haley. Most recently, though, he was working for a rival campaign. Marchant says he just couldnt keep quiet while Haley went on insisting she's been 100 percent faithful.

Mr. MARCHANT: I just want to stay with honesty. I mean, look, we're on the heels of one of the most embarrassing moments of this state's history with Mark Sanford.

ROSE: South Carolinians are eager to have their politicians sex lives stop being the subject of late-night jokes. But, ironically, these latest allegations seem to have solidified Nikki Haley's base.

Here's voter Louise Frank.

Ms. LOUISE FRANK: I just think it's a typical, hateful kind of stuff they dig up at the last minute. And I would probably still vote - not probably, I am planning to vote for Nikki Haley.

ROSE: A weekend poll of South Carolina voters had Nikki Haley leading by 20 points in the Republican race for governor. Meanwhile, her opponents: a sitting congressman, the state's current lieutenant governor, and state attorney general have struggled in the last few days to capture any of the spotlight.

For NPR News, Im Julie Rose.

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