Republican Nikki Haley, a conservative backed by the Tea Party movement, is the heavy favorite to win a runoff for her party's nomination in South Carolina's gubernatorial race. Haley, who hopes to become the state's first female governor, has been tested by allegations of marital infidelity and questions about her religious beliefs.
But her successful handling of such matters has also made Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, a Republican rising star.
A year ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find someone in South Carolina to seriously predict that state Rep. Nikki Haley would someday be on the verge of winning the GOP nomination for governor. It's something Haley herself loves to remind voters of -- as she did last Friday at a campaign appearance in Charleston.
"I am so excited," she said, "because when I started this fight, I was Nikki Who?"
Building On Momentum, And Endorsements
One thing that helped Haley immensely was that she was anything but a "good old boy." And some big-time endorsements provided a boost, as well.
Sarah Palin spoke at a rally for Haley at South Carolina's State House, telling the crowd, "I am proud to lend my support. Your home-grown gal, born and raised here in South Carolina."
There was also an endorsement from former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford. The Tea Party movement joined in as well.
Haley's leading opponent has been U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, who has faced noisy criticism for his vote in favor of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, meant to relieve the economic crisis that hit in late 2008.
Barrett is in Tuesday's runoff, but in appearances and in TV ads, he has had to explain that vote over and over again.
In one spot, Barrett says, "Unfortunately, a lot of people have disagreed with my TARP vote, and they can't get over it. And you know, there's nothing I can do about that. It is what it is."
A Fast Rise, And Allegations Of Affairs
Haley's campaign picked up steam this spring. She went ahead in polls in May. Then the big story of the campaign broke: A conservative South Carolina blogger claimed that he and Haley had had an affair.
Then a second man made a similar claim. Haley vehemently denied both, and said the accusations were politically motivated.
During a June debate, Haley said she has been "absolutely faithful to my husband for 13 years. And the fact, you just said it, this is the second allegation in two weeks' time -- and it all happened after I started showing I had double-digit leads in the polls."
It could have been a disaster for the Haley campaign, but something happened. The allegations spurred a backlash, and a lot of Republicans saw her as a victim. On primary day, Haley overwhelmed the competition, winning 49 percent of the vote, more than twice as much as Barrett and just short of what she needed to win the nomination outright.
Another Issue: Sikh Vs. Christian Religion
Haley has also had to deal with issues related to her religion. A Republican state senator referred to her using an ethnic slur. A county GOP chairman sent an e-mail casting doubt on her conversion, which took place when she got married.
Haley does still occasionally attend Sikh services. The Rev. Ray Popham, in the small town of Aiken, says he gets questions about that from his congregation.
Noting that Sikhs and Christians have their own ideas and paths, Popham says, "Religiously-wise, you can't be both -- and it sounds like someone is trying to be political if they're trying to be both."
Haley's campaign has addressed the religion issue on her campaign Web site in a fact-check page. Under the headline "Is Nikki a Christian?" is her response:
"My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make."
Looking Toward November
Haley may be the favorite in Tuesday's runoff election, but some voters say they still have concerns. Last week, 40-year-old Heather Cash of Spartanburg said weariness over the scandal that current Gov. Mark Sanford went through last year does make her worry about the claims against Haley.
"I would like to think that it didn't happen," Cash said. "I would like to believe that ... but now, after Sanford, you do have to look at it."
Cash says she's still undecided. But 53-year-old Mickey McGuire has no such worries. She had just seen Haley speak at the College of Charleston.
"I shook her hand and told her she's inspired us and to keep on keeping on," McGuire said. "She's dynamic, she's conservative, and I think she's a person who's going to shake things up.
"And I think that's what people are looking for, not only here in South Carolina, but even nationally."
But before that, Haley needs not only to win Tuesday's runoff, but also to beat her Democratic opponent in November. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.