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Nikki Haley Could Actually Lose ... And It's Because of That Sex Scandal

As Election Day approaches, national pundits are naturally focused on certain highly competitive marquee contests. And when observers need some comic relief from the tension of the campaign trail, there’s always Christine O’Donnell to supply fresh material.

But there are a significant number of “sleeper” races around the country that haven’t attracted much national attention, even as they rivet the locals. And one of the most surprising is down in South Carolina, where the once-legendary Nikki Haley’s cakewalk to the governorship is stumbling a bit.

Remember Haley? When she was last on national political radar, she was the triumphant Asian American who—with an assist from Sarah Palin—trounced the good ol' boys of South Carolina politics in a GOP primary and runoff, despite their efforts to destroy her with false charges of marital infidelity and nasty appeals to ethnic and religious bigotry. In a state as heavily Republican as South Carolina, in a year like this, it was assumed she’d win the general election easily, and given the circumstances, many people outside the Palmetto State who had little reason to like Haley’s hard-right politics felt pretty good about the glass-ceiling implications of her victory.

But in South Carolina itself, Haley has been seen less as a gender or ethnic pioneer (on the latter front, her Democratic opponent, Vincent Sheheen, is himself of Lebanese—i.e., Arab—extraction) than as a protégé of semi-disgraced outgoing Governor Mark Sanford. And Sanford’s administration was marked by endless feuds with other Republicans, and of course, by a sex scandal that is the essential context for understanding why South Carolinians are still talking about Haley’s sex life.

If Haley were facing a really poor opponent, concerns about her of any nature, particularly among Republicans, would probably be muted. But Sheheen has proved to be a gamer; winning his primary convincingly, doing a good job of fundraising, and, in the most startling development of the general election contest, earning the endorsement of that great scourge of liberalism, the Chamber of Commerce.

For her part, Haley seems to have rested on her primary-victory laurels a bit too much. The most notable policy initiative of her campaign has been a proposal to eliminate SC’s corporate income tax, which as observers from around the political spectrum have noted, would only benefit a small number of very large businesses. This position made even less sense when Haley paired it with a suggestion that the sales tax on groceries should be reinstated, on grounds that the exemption didn’t create “a single job” (nor did it, in fact, improve national security, either; who cares?). More recently, she borrowed former primary opponent Andre Bauer’s highly demagogic idea of requiring drug tests for anyone applying for unemployment benefits.

At the same time, details about Haley’s past have come out that have nothing to do with sex, including some questionable consulting contracts and a history of filing her taxes late.

Moreover, the sex stuff just won’t go away. Her two accusers, blogger Will Folks and political operative Larry Marchant, have both filed sworn affadavits attesting to their allegations of illicit liaisons with Haley. The Folks affidavit, as explained in a long Charleston City Paper article on the persistence of the whole story, gets very specific about the time, place and manner of the alleged trysts. The Haley camp has clearly decided to gut it out and continue to accuse her accusers of nasty political motives.

The underlying problem for Haley is that she’s pledged to resign as governor if she is subsequently proven to have lied about the alleged infidelity. And that promise, unfairly or not, is bound to raise unhappy memories of Mark Sanford’s confessional press conferences once he finally admitted to his own adulterous adventures, which made South Carolina a national laughingstock.

So Haley is, by all accounts, losing support as Election Day approaches; but the question is whether the election is close enough for that to matter. Rasmussen shows Haley up by nine points, after leading by 17 points in September. A Crantford Associates survey at the end of September had Sheheen within four points of Haley. (Crantford is a Democratic firm, but the poll was not for a campaign.) And a new Insider Advantage poll just out today has her still up by 14 points. But it cannot be a good sign for Haley that a Republican group opposing her candidacy, called Conservatives for Truth in Politics, has been formed by with two prominent Charleston Republicans.The wild card is candidates' debates, of which two still remain. The first featured lots of charges and counter-charges, and though Sheheen by most accounts did well, he didn’t score any sort of breakthrough. The bigger question is whether Haley can avoid big mistakes, and not do anything that reinforces of existing doubts about her past and present character.

It’s anybody’s guess as to how deep those doubts have sunk. Chris Hair, author of the Charleston City Paper article summarizing the sex rumors, says:

The Republicans may not like it. The Democrats may not like it. But the 2010 gubernatorial race comes down to one thing and one thing only: Did Nikki Haley have an affair with Will Folks?

Even if that’s true—and it’s probably a big exaggeration—Haley currently seems to have most South Carolinians convinced that the rumored affair did not occur. But thanks to a less-than-sterling campaign and perhaps a bit of complacency, she hasn’t left herself a very large margin for error. It’s lucky for her that South Carolina politics is so thoroughly dominated by the Republican Party that she claims she's fighting to purify.