Haley avoids backlash against Sanford, surges in latest poll

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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TIGERVILLE, S.C. — Talk to voters around South Carolina, and it’s clear many are embarrassed by the missteps of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who infamously told his staff that he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he was carrying on an affair with his “soulmate” in Argentina.

In fact, “stay off the Appalachian Trail” is now political speak around the state for avoiding Sanford’s blunders.

Sanford, whose two terms are up in January, has financially endorsed the Republican pick for governor Nikki Haley, a state representative, with his political action committee spending $400,000 for favorable TV ads during the primaries. Sanford also appeared at her primary victory celebration.

So why hasn’t Sanford’s support been toxic for the Haley campaign?

Haley’s Democratic opponent Vincent Sheheen has done his best to tie her to Sanford’s failures at speeches and campaign stops. One of his primary platforms is “restoring trust in the governor’s office,” and he claims that potential national and international businesses have shied away investing in South Carolina because of Sanford.

“We don’t want to go back to the policies of the last eight years,” Sheheen told an audience of local business leaders last week.

But the latest Rasmussen poll released Friday shows Sheheen’s efforts are not sticking. Haley now leads Sheheen by 16 points, 52-36, up from 49-35 late last month. Haley also leads Sheheen among independents by 13 points.

“What the majority of folks in South Carolina seem to find frustrating and unappealing about Sanford was more his style of doing things. It wasn’t that they didn’t really like his policies,” said C. Danielle Vinson, chair of the political science department at Furman University. “They just didn’t appreciate his style of politics.”

Haley, who has served as a state representative since 2004, has run as an outsider to the state political establishment, promising to bring accountability and transparency to Columbia, S.C. She rode a wave of Tea Party support to defeat a field of more well-known Republican candidates, including Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

A key moment in the primary for Haley was when Sanford’s wife Jenny — now ex-wife — endorsed the Republican in November 2009. The then-first lady gave credence to the Haley ticket, long before former Alaska governor Sarah Palin voiced her support and helped catapult her to the top of the polls.

State GOP members are quietly wary, however, of “Sanford 2.0” – that details will emerge that would substantiate a so-far unconfirmed claim by blogger Will Folks that the two had an affair.

Last week, Folks’ blog accused Haley of not releasing all her legislative emails and took the opportunity to recap the affair allegations in a post entitled “Missing Emails Revive Haley Scandal,” only this time none of the national media blinked.

Folks’ evidence has been inconclusive at best, citing unnamed sources who place the two together and releasing scores of his own text messages and phone records. Voters, however, do not seem to buy the story.

If anything, it may have boosted her campaign, with some voters seeing the allegations coming from the political establishment as confirmation that she was an outsider. Haley has pledged to resign if Folks’ claim is proven, which state Republicans feel would be devastating.

“I run in a lot of Republican circles, and there’s a lot of concern that she’s still carrying baggage from that,” said J. David Woodard, political science professor at Clemson University and political consultant for Republican candidates, including Sen. Lindsey Graham in 1996, former President George W. Bush in 2000 and Sen. Jim DeMint in 1998. “They definitely don’t want to go through it again.”

Before the affair, Sanford was rarely shy about butting heads with the state legislature. His often confrontational style may have been best-illustrated when he appeared at a press conference in 2004 with two live pigs in his arms, one nicknamed “Pork” and the other “Barrel,” to protest the state House of Representatives’ efforts the previous day to override his 106 budget vetoes.

Haley’s rhetoric suggests she would do things differently than Sanford.

“One of the things Haley has tried to do on the campaign trail is to reassure people that she will work with others, even when they disagree with her,” Vinson said.

Economically, Sanford and Haley have similar policy ideas. Both are self-confessed penny-pinchers and believers in limited government. Haley says that she looks at government as an accountant.

Even before getting her bachelor’s degree from Clemson is in accounting, she claims to have helped keep the books for her parents’ small business. After working as an accounting supervisor in Charlotte, N.C., she returned to the family business.

Haley speaks often about cutting wasteful government spending and dealing with the budget deficit, which has long been an ideal of Sanford.

“It’s not gonna be fun, and it’s not gonna be easy. We’re going to have to make some hard decisions,” Haley said at a recent event. “I will go to each agency and say, ‘What do we need?’ We will start at zero and go from there.”

With or without Sanford, polls show Haley is getting along just fine.