South Carolina voters will head to the polls Tuesday in a gubernatorial primary fraught with allegations of marital infidelity by the leading GOP candidate, which could have unexpected repercussions for the race to replace outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford this fall.
For two times in as many weeks, Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley, a 38-year-old married mother of two, has denied ever having had an extramarital affair despite separate, unsubstantiated claims to the contrary. The Tea Party-endorsed Haley holds a double-digit lead over her closest rival, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, in several polls.
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Larry Marchant, a paid consultant to Bauer, said last week he'd had a one-night stand with Haley at a conference in Salt Lake City in 2008 but could not provide proof to back up the allegation.
"If Ms. Haley categorically denies that we had a physical relationship in Salt Lake City, Utah, she is not telling the truth," Marchant told ABC News.
He has since resigned from his post with the Bauer campaign.
Ten days earlier, political blogger Will Folks claimed he had an "inappropriate physical relationship with Haley" in 2007 and provided telephone and text records showing repeated contact with Haley at the time.
Haley has decried the late-race allegations as blatant, political attacks.
"I've been absolutely faithful to my husband for 13 years," she said during a televised debate in Charleston. "This is just disgusting politics."
South Carolina newspaper the State and The Associated Press have reported political and business ties among Bauer, Marchant and Folks, but Bauer has denied having had any involvement in making the allegations. "I haven't gotten involved in anyone else's personal relationship," he said during the debate.
"As Nikki Haley rises in the polls, the good old boys in Columbia see their taxpayer-funded fraternity party coming crumbling down," Haley campaign spokesman Tim Pearson said. "They will say or do anything to hold on to their power."
Haley, a three-term state representative who has been viewed as the hand-picked heir to embattled Sanford, caught many observers by surprise when she surged ahead in the polls last month, surpassing early front-runners U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Will Allegations Trigger 'Sympathy Bounce' for Haley?
Sanford, who is not running for reelection because of state term limits, confessed to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman last year, sparking intense political drama and widespread condemnation from within his own party.
Haley has also earned the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to which many pundits credit her recent surge. Palin has appeared with Haley on the campaign trail and has taped robocalls for her campaign across the state.
"You can make your own statement against these unfair attacks, and you can help take back state government, by voting for the real deal conservative, Nikki Haley on Tuesday," Palin said in the taped message.
Political analysts say the sex allegations surrounding Haley could influence South Carolina voters in Tuesday's ballot.
"The latest allegations could be a trigger for a sympathy bounce [for Haley] if no concrete evidence comes out," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. "But some people think where there's smoke, there's fire … and shenanigans tend to turn some voters off."
Bauer, who has been endorsed by former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, remains popular with a mix of conservatives and independents but faces image problems of his own.
"People that like him adore him, people that don't like him hate him," Huffmon said.
Bauer continues to take heat for his January comments comparing impoverished public schoolchildren who receive free lunches to "stray animals."
He has also faced questions about his driving record, including an incident in which he was caught going more than 100 miles per hour in a state vehicle but not given a ticket.
The winner of Tuesday's GOP gubernatorial primary will face the victor of the Democratic ballot, which could be Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who's ahead of his two closest challengers by more than 10 points in several polls.
"If Vincent Sheheen can use a lot of money to get his name recognition up, he will really seem as a young, fresh face," Huffmon said. And since "the Republican brand will have the taint of scandal, the race for November will be more competitive than people think it is."