In Backing Romney, Haley Seen As Political Enigma

Jan 20, 2012

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, one of the Tea Party's early superstars, has seen her approval ratings fall, and some of her core supporters are baffled by Haley's endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Haley won election in 2010 as a true fiscal conservative, capturing the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who said Haley was willing to challenge the good old boys of the state's politics.

"Maybe they don't like her too much, but it's because she stands up for what is right," said Palin, the former Alaska governor, when she endorsed Haley. "She has that stiff spine, and she's doing it for you, South Carolina."

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, addressed a Tea Party convention in South Carolina earlier this week, ahead of the state's first-in-the-South presidential primary on Saturday. She said her biggest achievements as governor have been tort reform, Medicaid reform and a law requiring legislators to cast many votes on the record. But perhaps the biggest draw for this conservative audience is her reputation as a fighter.

"If you just judge me on this past year, judge me on my lawsuits. Because I've been sued by unions, I've been sued by the ACLU, the Department of Justice — and Jesse Jackson was talking smack last week, so it's really a good track record," she said.

Haley thrust herself into the national spotlight last year with a battle over an effort by the National Labor Relations Board to punish Boeing for its decision to build a new plant in South Carolina. The state also is fighting with the federal government over a new immigration law and a new voter ID measure. Both have been blocked.

"What they don't know is you don't mess with us in South Carolina," Haley said earlier this week.

The governor talks like she is at war with the federal government.

"We're going to fight, and as much as President Obama has decided to continue with his assaults on South Carolina, we're going to continue to fight back," Haley says.

Fighter Or Establishment Figure?

But Haley isn't getting the kind of strong support she did when she was elected, and Tea Party supporters couldn't have been more shocked with her choice to back Romney, a decision she announced on Fox News last month.

"What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos that is Washington. What I wanted was someone who knew what it was like to turn broken companies around," Haley said.

Even before the endorsement, Haley's approval ratings had been dropping. A recent Winthrop University poll shows just 35 percent of South Carolina voters approve of the job she's doing.

Haley dismissed the poll, but she can't quiet critics of her endorsement.

"It's disappointing to a lot of people in this state," said Talbert Black, a Libertarian who worked for Haley's gubernatorial campaign but now doesn't speak to her. "She could have picked anybody, and at least had some of her base say, 'Yeah, that was a good pick.' Except Romney. I haven't heard anybody say that was a great pick for her."

Black said he is upset that Haley hasn't pushed through the budget reform and school choice bills she promised. And he's angry that Haley supported the deepening of the Savannah Harbor in neighboring Georgia. It's a decision that many say hurts the Port of Charleston in her own state.

Haley, who came to office fighting the establishment, seems to have joined it, Black said.

"She didn't do what she said she was going to do, and I think the folks who helped get her to where she is, she's not going to have their support if she runs again, which I assume she will," Black said.

During her first year in office, Haley has experienced a constant stream of controversies that have helped to diminish her support, said Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

"She finishes one controversy and then a few weeks later there's another one, and you have to think that affects public support," said Tompkins.

In Haley's Corner

In Columbia, S.C., Allen Olson, a carpenter and the former head of the Columbia Tea Party, said he still strongly supports the governor.

"She knows a lot of positions she takes are controversial, but she takes 'em anyways because she's doing what's in the best interest of South Carolina, I believe," said Olson.

Olson is not a Romney fan. He's campaigning for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich but says Haley backed Romney because the former Massachusetts governor supported her campaign in 2010.

"As long as she doesn't try to tie it to the Tea Party, I have absolutely no problem with her doing what she did," he said. "I know there are some people that have misgivings about that, and as of right now, I'm still 100 percent in Nikki Haley's corner."

It's not clear whether Haley's endorsement of Mitt Romney will hurt her future in South Carolina — or help Romney in Saturday's primary, where polls show him neck-and-neck with Gingrich.

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