Three days before South Carolina voters head to the polls for the state's gubernatorial primary, allegations of marital infidelity by a leading GOP candidate have dominated the political discourse, 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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On Wednesday, Larry Marchant, a paid consultant to Bauer, said 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. He has since resigned from his post with the Bauer campaign.
Ten days earlier, political blogger Will Folks claimed 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 Wednesday. "This is just disgusting politics."
South Carolina newspaper The State and The Associated Press have reported political and business ties between 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," said Haley campaign spokesman Tim Pearson. "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 Gov. Mark 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 re-election 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.
Still, the recent 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," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "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," said Huffmon.
Bauer continues to take heat for his January comments comparing impoverished public schoolchildren who receive free lunches to "stray animals." He's 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," said Huffmon. And since "the Republican brand will have the taint of scandal, the race for November will be more competitive than people think it is."