In one of the most-watched races in the country – for reasons that have nothing to do with actual issues – Nikki Haley finished first in the Republican gubernatorial primary in South Carolina on Tuesday.
Recent accusations of infidelity
and a GOP state senator's ethnic slur
only seemed to strengthen the campaign of the 38-year-old Haley, who won close to half of the vote
. But though she finished far in front of the other three candidates, she did not get the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.
State Rep. Haley will face second-place finisher U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett on June 22. In conservative South Carolina, the winner will be the favorite to win the November general election to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mark Sanford.
Haley – who would become the first female governor of South Carolina
– preferred to stress her conservative credentials and her background as an accountant with a message of fiscal responsibility.
"When Nikki Haley becomes governor, every day is going to be a Tea Party," she said at a recent Rock Hill, S.C., campaign stop, acknowledging the groups behind her success. If Haley won in November, she would join another conservative Republican, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, as one of two U.S. governors of Indian-American descent.
State Attorney General Henry McMaster trailed far behind Haley and Barrett (despite a last-minute endorsement by former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani
), as did Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who had to give up his office to run for governor.
The executive director of the powerful Republican Governors Association is sending a not-so-subtle message that Haley is the group's preferred choice, according to The New York Times
. In a statement that does not mention her opponent, Nick Ayers said: "The voters of South Carolina made a clear choice in Nikki Haley, notwithstanding the possibility of a runoff. The outcome is all but certain. Nikki Haley withstood a barrage of inuendoes and slurs in the closing days of the primary season and persevered to the finish with dignity, determination and confidence. Moreover, receiving half of the votes against two other statewide incumbent Republicans and a sitting Congressman speaks volumes of her strength as a candidate and bodes very well for her in the General Election."
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State Sen. Vincent Sheheen won the Democratic nomination for governor, said The Associated Press, over state Education Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sen. Robert Ford. Sheheen was endorsed by Jim Hodges, the party's last governor.
"What is clear is that the people of South Carolina have spoken today, and what they've said is that South Carolina is ready for new, conservative, accountable, leadership. And that Nikki Haley is the leader to bring it to them," Haley's campaign said in a statement.
She has also made a dent in the "good old boy" culture
In the last two weeks, the GOP primary campaign made national headlines when both a conservative blogger and a campaign consultant for rival Bauer claimed affairs with Haley, who denied the accusations. State Sen. Jake Knotts then used the slur "raghead" to describe Haley and President Obama on an online political show. (The Lexington County Republican Party has scheduled a Thursday meeting
to discuss a response to the remark.)
Sarah Palin's support of Haley
– one of the conservative female candidates Palin calls her "mama grizzlies" – has been unwavering. Palin campaigned with Haley in South Carolina last month, defended her on Facebook and recorded a call to voters that said, in part, that Haley "isn't afraid to take on the entrenched powers." The former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate said in the message: "When you do that, they come after you with all kinds of made-up nonsense to try to knock you down."
Jenny Sanford, the ex-wife of the current governor -- who must be grateful that Haley's troubles moved his Argentine adventures off the radar – also endorsed Haley.
At campaign appearances, Haley was often accompanied by her husband, Michael, who was featured in a television ad with their two children. In the ad, Haley said, "I've seen the dark side of our state's politics and I know the bright side of our state's people." She spoke about her Methodist faith (her parents are Sikhs) and the importance of family.
Appearing before supporters Tuesday night, The New York Times reported, Haley said to her husband: "This is what kept me strong," adding, "I think he'll make a cute first man, don't you?"
South Carolina voters seemed anxious to move past the allegations of infidelity. Either they ignored the claims, sick of the ridicule and eager to discuss more substantive issues, or warmed to Haley because of it. Polls showed that Haley's support increased
after the allegations and crowds at recent rallies expressed sympathy and cheered her on.
In another closely watched South Carolina race, U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis is also headed to a primary runoff; the Republican finished second to prosecutor Trey Gowdy in his bid for a fourth straight term. The winner on June 22 faces Democrat Paul Corden, who was unopposed in his primary.
Inglis was attacked from the right
for not being conservative enough despite endorsements from the American Conservative Union, the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He was criticized for supporting federal bailouts and he was also one of only six Republican House members who joined nearly all Democrats in voting to punish Congressman Joe Wilson for violating House conduct standards. "I just have this notion that we should apply the rules fairly, without regard to partisanship," Inglis said in The State newspaper about that vote.
Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman known for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama, easily won
his Republican primary in the 2nd District, besting businessman Phil Black. Wilson, 62, will face Democrat Rob Miller in the fall. Both raised record campaign contributions after Wilson's outburst.
And in an unusual development, an unemployed military veteran surprised South Carolina Democratic Party leaders by winning the nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, according to an Associated Press report
. Alvin Greene, 32, defeated 64-year-old Vic Rawl, a former judge and legislator from Charleston. Rawl had already scheduled a fund-raising event for Thursday. Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler told the AP that the win by Greene -- who raised no money, had no signs and no Web site – may be due to people who voted alphabetically.