COLUMBIA — Political pressure is building for Gov. Nikki Haley to endorse a presidential candidate.
With just two weeks to go until the South Carolina Republican primary, speculation is growing on whether she’ll endorse a candidate, and if so, who it will be.
Whispers under the Statehouse dome are that Haley will ultimately side with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or perhaps former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, if he fares well in New Hampshire.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, a close ally of Haley’s, was among those who preferred not to guess.
“The way I look at it, a primary is like “Family Feud”: be careful whose side you pick,” said Peeler, a Gaffney Republican. “Make sure you pick the family member that’s going to win.”
Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said Haley is an independent person, adding that it would be a mistake for anyone to try to guess what she would do.
“I think her endorsement carries beyond the borders of South Carolina,” Bingham said. “I believe that’s why she doesn’t feel like she has to rush to make an endorsement.”
But if she does, some political watchers are leaning toward Rubio, who was endorsed this week by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Haley in 2012 appointed Scott to fill the Senate seat he now holds. The two have been aligned politically ever since on issues ranging from removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds to opposing the transfer of terror detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the Navy brig in Hanahan.
Scott said on Thursday that he has not spoken with Haley about endorsements. He also said he did not inform Haley of his plans to announce support for Rubio, though he admitted he’d been pretty much set on backing the Florida Republican for the last three or four weeks.
Since making the endorsement, Scott said the feedback from colleagues has been “incredibly positive, very positive — amazing, actually, how much goodwill there is in the chamber for Rubio.”
But Scott didn’t want to suggest his blessing was a game-changer.
“I think it’s easy to overstate your own endorsement and your own success,” Scott said, “But certainly we have had a lot of positive responses to those who were on the fence in South Carolina, so I hope that was a meaningful shift that will be measured in votes. But it’s not really about me as much as it’s about Rubio.”
Back at the Statehouse, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, said he believed Haley could pick Rubio or Bush, but not a candidate who doesn’t do well in New Hampshire.
“She’s going to want to pick somebody who has substantial support in future states,” Quinn said. “I don’t see her weighing in on a candidate who doesn’t have a shot at winning the nomination.”
Governors who hesitate to endorse sometimes do so if they’re expected to be on the short list for vice president, said Scott Huffmon, political science professor at Winthrop University. Huffmon said Haley endorsing Rubio or Bush wouldn’t be a surprise, but more improbable for Bush.
“As long as whoever she endorses ends up winning the nomination, it would be very big for her,” Huffmon said.
Haley’s office did not immediately return a request for comment. Haley did say on Jan. 27 that when she endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, she made her decision in a week’s time.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he expects Haley to follow her conscience if she endorses.
“I think at the end of the day, if Gov. Haley decides to endorse it’ll be because she believes the candidate has a vision for the country and an understanding of governing principles is similar to hers,” Davis said.
As for whom Haley won’t endorse, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said it’s more obvious who she dislikes. “She’s made it very clear” who it won’t be, he said, referring to real estate mogul Donald Trump.
While Haley’s support is highly coveted in light of the national attention she has received in the months since the Emanuel AME Church shooting and her response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, there’s also a chance she would choose not to commit, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
“She can always say, ‘We’ve got a lot of good candidates,’” Knotts said. “And this may be a year where getting an endorsement from an established politician may carry a little less weight because people are a little frustrated with government in general, even though her approvals are pretty high.”