Welcome to South Carolina, land of all the marbles. And Nikki Haley, too

They grow peaches and tobacco in South Carolina. And BMWs, too.

But as of this morning, this state’s primary surplus is in marbles. So far as the Republican presidential race is concerned, all of them can be found in the vast acreage between Charleston and Rock Hill.

Mitt Romney’s victory in his neighboring state of New Hampshire was less than a surprise. The only tension of the evening was whether Newt Gingrich would hit the mark he set for himself – third or fourth place. He finished fourth, ahead of Rick Santorum.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley introduces former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a campaign stop at Peanut Warehouse in Conway, S.C., last week. Logan Mock-Bunting/The New York Times

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley introduces former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a campaign stop at Peanut Warehouse in Conway, S.C., last week. Logan Mock-Bunting/The New York Times

But South Carolina and its Jan. 21 vote will be the true test of whether we’re in for a truncated GOP race – or a long slog into April. A Romney victory – he led with 37 percent of the South Carolina vote in a CNN poll last week – would make it difficult for many of his opponents to justify a continued campaign.

“It would be very hard,” Gingrich reportedly told reporters as New Hampshire votes rolled in on Tuesday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who nearly abandoned the contest after a poor finish in Iowa, may be in the same boat.

And so for the next 10 days, Georgia’s next-door neighbor is likely to be a savage land of last resorts. Romney will be the primary target. Another could be the woman likely to be at Romney’s side during much of the campaigning – Gov. Nikki Haley.

An endorsement from a popular governor is always a plus for a presidential candidate. A governor with baggage is not – and the amount of weight that Haley finds herself saddled with has become a hot topic of debate in South Carolina.

Haley’s endorsement of Romney was no surprise. She had backed the former Massachusetts governor in 2008. Last May, on the eve of his entry into the presidential contest, the South Carolina governor said that Gingrich would have to prove that his ideas were “still relevant.”

But last month, days before she made her most recent endorsement of Romney, a statewide South Carolina poll of 1,073 registered voters found that only 35 percent approved of the job she had done in her first year of office. Her approval rating was lower than that of President Barack Obama.

Haley’s campaign pollster put out a memo that declared the poll conducted by Winthrop University included “far too many Democrats and far too few Republicans” to be accurate. And the Romney campaign leaked an internal poll of the state that placed Haley’s job approval at 66 percent.

(Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop University poll, rejected the criticism as “unfounded,” and noted that a 2010 survey had accurately predicted Haley’s election.)

Yet even supporters of both Romney and Haley admit the South Carolina governor has struggled. “Have her numbers come down since she was elected? I think any governor’s numbers come down,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland County.

Haley’s emphasis on reform has cost her among South Carolina’s Republican establishment, Ballentine said. “But it’s just like with Romney. You don’t fix Washington by sending Washington back there.”

His is not a universal assessment. “When she got elected in 2010, it was with tea-party support and a number of social conservatives supporting her,” said Scott Buchanan, director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. “Some of that tea-party support has waned. She has promised transparency in government that she hasn’t delivered on — the tea party vote is not very happy with her now.”

Late last year, the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper asked Haley for instructions she emailed to a committee asked to determine whether the state should set up health care exchanges – pools that the uninsured could tap for coverage – under the new federal overhaul.

Haley said the emails didn’t exist. But the newspaper found them anyway. They showed that Haley had dictated the results of the study before the first meeting was held – the governor ordered a rejection of any participation in a federal exchange or the creation of a state-run exchange.

One of Haley’s problems has its roots in Georgia. “She’s catching a lot of flack about this whole port situation. That has cost her an enormous amount of political points, from her own party,” Buchanan said.

Last November, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control approved $500 million dredging of Savannah’s harbor – after words of encouragement from Haley, which were mightily applauded in Georgia.

South Carolina and Georgia have been locked in a fierce battle over which port – Savannah or Charleston – should dominate the region. Critics in South Carolina accused Haley of betrayal.

A month previous to the port decision, Haley had been in Atlanta, attending a fundraiser organized by Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican activist and Romney’s lead organizer in Georgia. Tanenblatt said this week that the event had been set in the spring and netted Haley only $15,000.

Legislators summoned the South Carolina governor to testify – but she refused, and lawmakers ultimately cleared Haley of any ulterior motives.

But the fracas could have an impact on the outcome of the South Carolina primary. The state is somewhat stratified, with the most conservative voters located in the northern, I-85 corridor of former mill towns. When he dives into South Carolina today, this swath will be Gingrich’s first target.

Haley’s strength – and Romney’s – lies downstate, close to the coast, Buchanan said. It is the area most attuned to the Savannah port controversy.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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12 comments Add your comment

td

January 10th, 2012
8:34 pm

Make or break state for Newt and Perry. If Romney wins then the nomination process is over and we can all start consentrating on Obama and removing him from office.

Centrist

January 10th, 2012
8:43 pm

Sorry td – Knock out punch coming even though it was already a TKO a month ago:

SC-2012 Primary: 36% Romney, 21% Gingrich, 13% Santorum – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/sc-2012-primary-36-romney_n_1196640.html

Romney also well ahead in the following Florida primary.

Sister Sarah

January 10th, 2012
8:48 pm

Please allow me to be petty in return for all the other petty individuals who seem to have a problem with President Obama and the teleprompter. Mitt Romney IMMEDIATELY GOES ON TELEPROMPTER as evidenced by the camera panning out on the stage in N.H. I’m sure Obama haters will deflect, find some excuse or claim it was not on. You can TRUST he will be ON TELEPROMPTER for every key stump speech during the primary and general process. So are they all, and thus why the argument is a petty one to begin with.

Centrist

January 10th, 2012
8:51 pm

In typical fashion, Mr. Jim Galloway has spent 90% of his blog attacking a Republican – in this case the Governor of South Carolina because she endorsed Romney.

Not that it matters – this blog does not hold any sway outside the perimeter of Atlanta, much less outside the state.

td

January 10th, 2012
9:08 pm

Centrist

January 10th, 2012
8:43 pm

I do not have a problem with supporting Romney. He is just not as conservative as I would like but he is much more conservative then Obama. I was just hoping to be able to vote for Newt one more time.

George Hills

January 10th, 2012
9:11 pm

Mr. Gingrich stabbed gun owners in the back by sneaking the misdemeanor gun ban through Congress. He’s not qualified to criticize anybody on guns.

findog

January 10th, 2012
9:27 pm

C, dude – reporting man bites dog does not make the writer a carnivore

Look before I leap...

January 10th, 2012
10:29 pm

So Centrist,

When do you see the Democrat juggernaut coming after Romney?
Do they start nipping at him him in late spring to try and slowly move the indie needle?
Or do they just wait until August and unleash a barrage?

Personally, I think they move very slowly and cautiously. If the economy picks up steam, then I would expect to see more and more PAC attacks against the GOP in an effort to maintain Senate control. I suspect that the Dems are going to punt on the House races this year as Obama’s coattails are going to be very short.

honested

January 10th, 2012
11:14 pm

nikki haley,
One term governor who will make South Asians sad for a generation.
Bringing South Carolina to heel.

Obama 2012!

mehlman rings twice

January 10th, 2012
11:42 pm

You just watch. Some GOP operative is going to accuse Haley of sleeping with Romney.

Alabama Communist

January 11th, 2012
12:21 am

More Breaking News On South Carolina Republicans Fight To The Finnish…….A source within the Romney Campaign said today they were thrilled to death that they got the endorsement of the Clemson Football Team. A another source within the Ron Paul campaign said it was a typical Corporate trick by Romney that he would be endorse by 2 losers Haley and the 70-zip Tigers
Meanwhile the Gringrich Campaign said they would be running TV’s Ads showing Romney dress as General Sherman and Rick Perry said today that the Republican Jesus would campaign with him in South Carolina and together they would drive out the Mormon Terrorism Cult from the State..Rick Satantorism said the Pope would campaign for him in South Carolina and they would drive out Mormonism, Rick Perry’s Republican Jesus and the Albert Pike Masonic Lodge in Charleston..Finally, John Huntman said he had converted to Chinese Buddism and was no longer a Mormon Communist which would lead to him finishing 1 st in the South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary..

Cap Pistol

January 11th, 2012
2:22 am

Despite media pimps trying to hype a race that is over, it is over. Furthermore, the attention Gingrich receives in the ajc is just, well,provincial pimping from a 3rd-rate rag.