In Backing Romney, Haley Seen As Political Enigma South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley swept into office on a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm. One year later, her approval numbers are slumping, and her endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has drawn criticism from many of her core supporters.

In Backing Romney, Haley Seen As Political Enigma

In Backing Romney, Haley Seen As Political Enigma

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Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, wish a happy birthday to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (left) at Romney's campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, wish a happy birthday to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (left) at Romney's campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, one of the Tea Party's early superstars, has seen her approval ratings fall, and some of her core supporters are baffled by her endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Haley won election in 2010 as a true fiscal conservative, capturing the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who said Haley was willing to challenge the good old boys of the state's politics.

"Maybe they don't like her too much, but it's because she stands up for what is right," said Palin, the former Alaska governor, when she endorsed Haley. "She has that stiff spine, and she's doing it for you, South Carolina."

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, addressed a Tea Party convention in South Carolina earlier this week, ahead of the state's first-in-the-South presidential primary on Saturday. She said her biggest achievements as governor have been tort reform, Medicaid reform and a law requiring legislators to cast many votes on the record. But perhaps the biggest draw for this conservative audience is her reputation as a fighter.

"If you just judge me on this past year, judge me on my lawsuits. Because I've been sued by unions, I've been sued by the ACLU, the Department of Justice — and Jesse Jackson was talking smack last week, so it's really a good track record," she said.

Haley thrust herself into the national spotlight last year with a battle over an effort by the National Labor Relations Board to punish Boeing for its decision to build a new plant in South Carolina. The state also is fighting with the federal government over a new immigration law and a new voter ID measure. Both have been blocked.

Nikki Haley, At A Glance

Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley is the first woman to serve as governor of South Carolina. She is also the first Indian-American to hold office in the state and the country's second Indian-American governor.

Born: Jan. 20, 1972, in Bamberg, S.C.

Family: She and husband, Michael Haley, have two children, Rena and Nalin. The Haleys were married in 1996 in both Methodist and Sikh ceremonies. She was raised in the Sikh faith and converted to the Methodist faith, her husband's religion.

Education: B.A., Clemson (1994)

Background: Haley's parents, Dr. Ajit and Raj Randhawa, are Sikh immigrants from India. She joined her mother's successful clothing business in 1994, and later served on several chamber of commerce boards. She ran for a seat in South Carolina's House of Representatives in 2004, beating out GOP incumbent Larry Koon in the primary. She ran unopposed twice and overwhelmingly defeated her Democratic opponent in 2008. As a lawmaker, Haley became a close ally to Gov. Mark Sanford. When it was revealed in 2009 that he'd been having an extramarital affair, she quickly distanced herself from the governor. A year later, two men alleged that they had had affairs with Haley, then a candidate for Sanford's seat.

"What they don't know is you don't mess with us in South Carolina," Haley said earlier this week.

The governor talks like she is at war with the federal government.

"We're going to fight," she says, "and as much as President Obama has decided to continue with his assaults on South Carolina, we're going to continue to fight back."

Fighter Or Establishment Figure?

But Haley isn't getting the kind of strong support she did when she was elected, and Tea Party supporters couldn't have been more shocked with her choice to back Romney, a decision she announced on Fox News last month.

"What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos that is Washington. What I wanted was someone who knew what it was like to turn broken companies around," Haley said.

Even before the endorsement, Haley's approval ratings had been dropping. A recent Winthrop University poll shows just 35 percent of South Carolina voters approve of the job she's doing.

Haley dismissed the poll, but she can't quiet critics of her endorsement.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and then-gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (left) attend a 2010 rally in Columbia, S.C. Mary Ann Chastain/AP hide caption

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Mary Ann Chastain/AP

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and then-gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (left) attend a 2010 rally in Columbia, S.C.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

"It's disappointing to a lot of people in this state," says Talbert Black, a libertarian who worked for Haley's gubernatorial campaign but now doesn't speak to her. "She could have picked anybody, and at least had some of her base say, 'Yeah, that was a good pick.' Except Romney. I haven't heard anybody say that was a great pick for her."

Black says he is upset that Haley hasn't pushed through the budget reform and school choice bills she promised. And he's angry that Haley supported the deepening of the Savannah Harbor in neighboring Georgia. It's a decision that many say hurts the Port of Charleston in her own state.

Haley, who came to office fighting the establishment, seems to have joined it, Black says.

"She didn't do what she said she was going to do, and I think the folks who helped get her to where she is, she's not going to have their support if she runs again, which I assume she will," Black says.

During her first year in office, Haley has experienced a constant stream of controversies that have helped to diminish her support, says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

"She finishes one controversy, and then a few weeks later there's another one, and you have to think that affects public support," he says.

In Haley's Corner

In Columbia, S.C., Allen Olson, a carpenter and the former head of the Columbia Tea Party, says he still strongly supports the governor.

"She knows a lot of positions she takes are controversial, but she takes 'em anyways because she's doing what's in the best interest of South Carolina, I believe," says Olson.

Olson is not a Romney fan — he's campaigning for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Olson says Haley backed Romney because the former Massachusetts governor supported her campaign in 2010.

"As long as she doesn't try to tie it to the Tea Party, I have absolutely no problem with her doing what she did," he says. "I know there are some people that have misgivings about that, and as of right now, I'm still 100 percent in Nikki Haley's corner."

It's not clear whether Haley's endorsement of Romney will hurt her future in South Carolina — or help Romney in Saturday's primary, where polls show him neck and neck with Gingrich.