A consultant to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer claimed Wednesday that he had sex with state Rep. Nikki Haley, and she accused Bauer's camp of being behind the latest allegations.
The consultant, lobbyist Larry Marchant, was fired by Bauer hours before a GOP gubernatorial debate in Charleston.
It was the second such claim against Haley in as many weeks by a well-known figure on the state's Republican political scene.
Haley said Wednesday that both claims were false and were "disgusting politics" thrown at her at the last minute, just as she emerged as the front-runner. Voters go to the polls Tuesday.
Marchant said Wednesday he had "sexual relations" with Haley in 2008. He spoke just hours after Bauer announced that he asked Marchant to resign as a political consultant, citing his "inappropriate conduct."
It also came nine days after blogger and former Gov. Mark Sanford spokesman Will Folks claimed he had a sexual relationship with Haley in 2007.
In both cases, no proof was offered.
Haley, R-Lexington, denied the Marchant affair at the beginning of the televised debate, calling it "disgusting politics."
"We have everything thrown at us," she said. "For the last six years I have spent time fighting the establishment for the good of the people. They are now fighting back."
When the debate moderator, WCSC-TV anchor Bill Sharpe, asked her whether some people might conclude that there's fire beneath the smoke because of a second allegation, Haley said she has been "absolutely faithful" to her husband of 13 years.
"This is the second allegation in two weeks time, and it all happened after our third showing that I had double-digit leads in the polls," she said. "I'm very disappointed this campaign has not been on policy. I have tried to run a good and respectful campaign. I wish my opponents would have done the same."
Bauer agreed with Haley that the campaign should be on issues and said, "When I found out information that could be possibly true, could not be true, I didn't want to associate with that kind of behavior, so I ended the relationship."
Bauer said he never spent a dime on digging up dirt on his opponents. "I haven't gotten involved in anybody else's personal relationship," he said.
Haley accused the Bauer campaign of shopping the story around Tuesday. "It was only when no one would take it seriously because he was a paid consultant that you decided to fire him today," she said.
"It reeks of everything that's wrong with South Carolina politics, and I will fight it every step of the way. ... We are done with the dirty politics that has given the state a bad name."
After the debate, Bauer said he learned about Marchant's claim a few days ago, but he denied that he was peddling the story of the affair.
"I didn't shop it. I didn't spend any money on opposition research," he said. "Whether it happened or not, I don't want to be associated with that." Asked if he believed Marchant's claim about Haley, Bauer replied, "I told y'all I wasn't going to comment."
As Michael Haley arrived with his wife at the debate, he said the allegation was "absolutely false."
The other GOP candidates, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Attorney General Henry McMaster, declined comment on the allegation when they arrived.
Marchant claimed he had an inappropriate relationship with Haley two years ago at a hotel in Salt Lake City. "We were alone together in a hotel bed and we had sexual relations that night," he said.
Haley recently went from being the dark horse in the campaign to the front-runner, bolstered in part by an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Earlier Wednesday, Haley's campaign released a 30-second television ad that addressed her turbulent week following Folks' claim.
"I've seen the dark side of our state's politics, and I know the bright side of our state's people," she said in the ad that features three separate images of her and her husband.
The ad concludes: "I'm Nikki Haley and this is my husband Michael. I would be deeply honored to serve as your governor. Together we can take back our government."
Michael Haley told The Post and Courier that the ad was meant to show "what the first family would look like."
Marchant is an influential lobbyist, serving as president of Palmetto Policy Group. He has represented the South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans, the Poker Players Alliance and groups pushing for private school tax credits.
He said he has been married for 10 years. He and his wife have two children and a third on the way.
Like Folks, who received a 30-day suspended sentence for domestic violence in 2005, Marchant has had at least one run-in with the police. Marchant was arrested in December in Columbia and charged with drunken driving and speeding.
Police reports show that Marchant was clocked driving 47 mph in a 30 mph zone at 12:30 a.m. Dec. 23. He failed three field sobriety tests and declined to take a breath analysis test, according to police.
Marchant said he was motivated to speak publicly about his alleged encounter because he wanted to be truthful. He said he felt compelled to address rumors that were surfacing in Columbia political circles.
"This is something that had been gnawing on me for quite some time," Marchant said. "I didn't call a press conference, but I decided that I was not going to lie. People can believe whatever they want."
Marchant said state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Mauldin, was at the school-choice conference in Utah where Marchant said the tryst took place.
"I saw nothing inappropriate," Bedingfield said Wednesday. "It was always in a group setting."
Bedingfield said it was not a state-funded trip.
While Bauer said he would have no further comment on Marchant, one of Bauer's longtime supporters said the lieutenant governor wasn't behind Marchant's allegations. Rather, Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, said Bauer fired Marchant when Marchant "confessed" to him.
"I bet my reputation," Knotts said. "I'll put my hand on a stack of Bibles and say, 'Andre's not behind that.' "
Knotts said Bauer had to act quickly when Marchant told him he had an encounter with Haley. If not, Knotts said, Bauer risked losing the support of the "religious right." He feared they would see his employment of Marchant as condoning the alleged actions.
"He did what he felt was right," he said. "Andre has no way of knowing (if it's true). No way Andre wanted this to happen."