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South Carolina's Nikki Haley: Pride of the Tea Party Sails Through Debate

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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."

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Who the heck is writing this crap???> Nimrata Haley got schooled by Vincent Sheheen. Are you just stupid or do you really think you can spin crap into sugar. This woman is totally out of touch mostly with reality. Do you really think telling people with a straight face that all the problems of the state will be solved with faith based groups and begging from the poor corporation that need a tax cut is any thought out plan?? Furthermore any lame plan she is standing on would take 10 years to accomplish. You either are as clueless as she is or you really didn't even watch the debate. GEEESHHHH

October 28 2010 at 12:30 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Are you insane?? I watched the entire debate and I saw alot of sinking from Nimrata Haley no sailing in site. Vincent Sheheen schooled this woman are showed her for what she was a liar. I guess you think faith based groups and begging for money from the very corporation she is saying are so poor they need tax cuts. This is one of the most insane plans I have ever heard of. Vincent however was very intelligent and articulated some very impressive plans for South Carolina that came across as well thought out. Nimrata only plans (although any of them would take 10 years by her own words, were in support of the churches and businesses that are leaving this state in droves make up for the decade of mismanagement, lack of oversight and overspending by this exsisting gang. It is people writing these stories for what ever reason that become part of the problems in the US today instead of part of the solution. Anyone concerned with South Carolina Vincent Sheheen is your only choice. Send this woman packing maybe then she will have time to pay her taxes. GEESH

October 26 2010 at 11:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

We have tried more government. It has gotten us fewer jobs, more foreclosures, immense debt, moonbat regulatory policies, frustration in dealing with any agency, and more corruption. I'm ready to try dramatically less government.

October 26 2010 at 7:02 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment

Then you would be supporting Vincent Sheheen who told you one of the first things he will do is consolidate all these different departments and consolidate them into one. Nimrata's only solution is to privatize, rely on faith based groups, and beg for money from these corporations so hard up they need to increase your tax to give them a break oh yeah according to her the rich need a tax cut too, but the middle class still has money we can take from them, starting with their retirement and social security. This woman is dangerous for this state.

October 26 2010 at 11:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
George & Nancy

jeffazi, we TEA partiers are learning fast. Why is it that all of you feel so threatened by a grassroots movement? Maybe because a year ago, our local chapter went from just under 10 people to over 500. People who never considered themselves activists before are now coming out week after week and hearing from some big name politicians in our state. Voting this year was a pleasure. We actually knew or heard from almost everyone who is running for some office. We have become INFORMED voters. We have all read the US Constitution. We hear from constitutional lawyers. And you probably won't believe this, but we allow NO racism, bigotry, etc. Our local is comprised of mostly seniors, probably 50% veterans. Anyone is welcome to join. We told politicians we will be calling them back frequently to defend their voting record. We are becoming a huge voter block. We even won't accept one dime from George Soros.

October 26 2010 at 3:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to George & Nancy's comment

Dear George & Nancy: When the TEA party takes away your Medicare and Social Security (after all, they're unconstitutional, right), who are you going to cry to? "What, you mean I can't have my Medicare and SS? I thought it was all about Guns, God and Gays (and hating anyone with a -D after their name, especially the one in the White House)."

October 26 2010 at 6:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

God help you if you think sending unqualified, untested and frankly unbalanced candidates to the Senate is going to fix anything. When you play with fire you are sure to get burned. All the Tea Party did was divide Republicans. Otherwise, why would the races be so close? Where is the landslide we were promised? Why arent these elections runaways for the Tea Pary candidates?

October 26 2010 at 9:32 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I live in Columbia. Pretty good article, well written and fair. By the way, since the author inferred to O,Donnell, at the end; that short clip currently going around: Christine O'Donnell vs Kris Coons in a debate, where the law students were laughing at her ""not knowing that the constitution teaches the separation of church and state"" showed that the LAW students there, AND Kris Coons are ignorant and uninformed about the constitution. Have they read it? O'Donnell was 100% correct. Nowhere in the american constitution does it say ONE word about separation of church and state. Progressives picked up on a private conversation expressed through a letter (people wrote letters in those days) between I think it was Jefferson and a protestant minister in which Jeffferson expressed his thoughts. They have been reciting that as the mantra of incontrovertible proof ever since that there is a separation of church and state ever since. Only one person ever said it at that ere by the way. They are incorrect and wrong. And they know it Last night I attended class #5 on what our constitution is; sponsored and taught at a small church 20 miles from my house. At least we are going through it systematically. Scuttlebug afterwards was that critics of Haley were going to ""photoshop"" her with an indian porn star and then ""leak the damagaging evidence"" after she wins, just to be ugly.

October 26 2010 at 6:46 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
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