COLUMBIA, S.C. – Watching "Mama Grizzly" Nikki Haley Monday night during the only statewide TV debate
in the South Carolina gubernatorial race underscored how different stylistically she is than her mentor Sarah Palin. Unlike Palin in her 2008 vice-presidential debate, Haley exuded no deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty, nor did she play to the politics of class resentment. Instead, the fast-talking Haley came across as poised, supremely confident and very conservative, even by South Carolina standards.
Leading in the polls against hard-charging Democrat Vincent Sheheen, a state senator, the 38-year-old Haley did not need to turn pirouettes or figure-8's to skate through the debate. While there was never the breakthrough moment that reporters (and, I suspect, most voters) crave, the debate did allow Haley to hammer home her less-government mantra.
At times, it was impressive how many conservative catch phrases Haley could cram into a single debate answer. A question about whether South Carolina should adopt statewide pre-kindergarten classes prompted Haley to declare, "Sen. Sheheen has never seen a spending bill that he didn't like . . . We don't need stimulus programs, we don't need any bailouts. What we need to do is to take our faith-based community . . ." Any second I expected Haley to utter the name "Nancy Pelosi" to punctuate her argument about allowing the churches to take charge of early education.
Sheheen is running a blistering 30-second TV commercial
highlighting Haley's misstatements that ends with the tagline, "Vincent Sheheen, a governor we can trust." That last line is an implicit reference to South Carolina's outgoing (perhaps too outgoing) Gov. Mark Sanford, who helped sponsor Nikki Haley's rapid rise in the state legislature. During the debate sponsored by SCETV, the state's public television network, Sheheen's eagerness to go on the attack was stymied by the genteel format and high-minded questions. "I don't think that the debate changed anything," said long-time Republican strategist Chip Felkel. "I think that both candidates can claim victory and be half right."
At times the debate pivoted around arcane South Carolina issues like exactly how many people work for the state Department of Education – 880 in Sheheen's reckoning versus 1,179 in Haley's. But even as the candidates became mired in left-over squabbles from their first debate last week (only broadcast in Spartanburg), there were larger philosophical questions at stake.
Sheheen is a classic southern moderate (happily invoking the names of prior Democratic and Republican governors) who wants in almost Kennedy-esque fashion to get South Carolina moving again. "Are we going to be a backwater, Third World state?" Sheheen asked rhetorically in the midst of a discussion of his opposition to closing local libraries to save money. In Nikki Haley's view, the obvious solution is to turn to the business community to save the libraries. "Not only would we brag on those corporations," she said, "but we'd have great libraries."
Haley is unequivocally pro-business in outlook: "We're very fortunate that we're a right-to-work state and we keep unions out," she said. But it is Sheheen who has the support of the state Chamber of Commerce and has cross-over appeal to traditional Republicans who worry that Haley may be too inflexibly ideological. Former GOP state senator Greg Gregory, who represented Lancaster County (closer to Charlotte, N.C., than Columbia) until 2008, said, "Vince Sheheen is swimming upstream, but he's the most capable person that the Democrats could have nominated." While Gregory also had kind words for Haley ("she has a magnetism about her"), he tellingly refused to say for whom he was voting.
But trailing by roughly a 10-percent margin
in recent polls (even though anecdotally he seems to be stronger), Sheheen needs an external event or gotcha moment to transform the race. The final debate with Haley Tuesday night in Florence provides him with a frail hope. But then Democrats traditionally struggle to get above 45 percent of the vote in South Carolina.
Sheheen needs high turnout among African Americans (who are nearly 30 percent of the state's electorate). Saturday night, delivering a powerful four-minute speech at a AME Zion church dinner in Rock Hill, the 39-year-old Sheheen won roaring applause from the largely black audience when he declared, "I will be the first governor in the history of South Carolina – in 200 plus years – who attended integrated public schools from state to finish." Of course, Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants from the Punjab, presumably can make an identical claim.
Ever since Haley won a decisive victory
(and also stared down two accusations of adultery) in the June GOP primary, she seemed poised to become a national political figure if elected governor. Dressed in a salmon-color Chanel suit knock-off (made by her mother's clothing company), Haley was an animated debater Monday night, punctuating almost every sentence with a different hand gesture (clutching her heart, palms open to the world, chopping with both hands, pointing to the future). For those who demand gender equality in clothing: Sheheen was wearing a dark suit.
In their closing statements, both candidates finally got to frame the debate in the way that each had hoped. For Shaheen, it was to remind voters that Haley represents the same uncompromising philosophy as Mark Sanford ("After the last eight years, we've been embarrassed by this state"). For Haley, who has been running as an outsider since she defeated a long-serving state legislator in the 2004 Republican primary, it was to label Sheheen as a (gasp!) "career politician." (In truth, Sheheen has only served four more years in the state legislature than Haley).
Like Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, Nikki Haley boasts sterling-silver tea party credentials. But my guess is that Nikki Haley will be a political force to reckon with long after most Americans forget the names of the tea party candidate who warned about "Second Amendment remedies" and the one who had to announce, "I am not a witch."