Haley's rivals eager for a calmer week

Haley (left), Folks (right).

Republican voters may enter the voting booths June 8 without knowing if anything happened three years ago between gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and her onetime consultant, blogger Will Folks.

Folks sent tremors through the four-way Republican primary Monday by reporting on his website fitsnews.com that he and Haley had an "inappropriate physical relationship."

Haley spent much of the rest of the week denying it, as Folks dribbled out text messages, phone records and other tidbits showing that the two once talked a lot.

They stopped short of proving any affair, but his blog posts often suggest there's more to come.

On Friday, WTMA-AM radio host Richard Todd reflected the ambiguity voters might feel, telling Haley that he supports her while also acknowledging that he harbors doubts about exactly what, if anything, went on.

"I, like many other voters out there, am wondering: Is this the person I want to be the next governor?" he told her. "Ideologically and philosophically, I have a lot of agreement ... with what you're talking about -- limited government and those kinds of things. Now this scandal comes up. ... (Folks) has raised suspicions in some people's minds about character and your reaction to a crisis when these kinds of allegations come out."

There's precedent for a politician to survive unanswered questions relating to late revelations of a possible affair. Bill Clinton fended off Gennifer Flowers' claims on his way to winning the White House in 1992. Voters had no proof in that election, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"If this blogger had ironclad proof, and Haley were forced to admit it, that would be a completely different kettle of fish," Sabato said, "but it hasn't been proven. It just hasn't."

Sabato said Haley is winning the public relations battle against Folks, and he predicted that she will finish in the top two June 8, giving her a slot in a likely runoff June 22.

"People who believe this probably weren't for her anyway," he said. "The rest either don't know or don't believe it. Those who don't know or don't believe it are angry at the blogger for his behavior. That benefits her."

The campaigns of Haley's rivals, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster, expressed a mix of exasperation of how the race was hijacked and hope for a calmer week ahead.

Barrett campaign manager Luke Byars noted that when Barrett was getting endorsed by the S.C. Minutemen Tuesday, reporters wanted to talk only about Haley.

"It's Chinese water torture for South Carolina political enthusiasts," Byars said. "This has been one of the most vitriolic and strange weeks of any South Carolina governor's race I've ever been associated with, and I've been doing this for 20 years."

Bauer's longtime friend and adviser Rod Shealy said the Folks-Haley fracas changed the dynamics of the race, but he said Bauer hasn't changed his campaign plans.

Shealy noted that, four years ago, Bauer was getting out of a hospital after a plane crash and storming back to fend off his GOP primary opponent. "(Bauer) thrives on being an underdog and coming from behind late in the game," Shealy said. "I suspect this incident has rattled others a lot more than him."

Rob Godfrey, McMaster's communications director, said high-profile races often have distracting background noise.

While he said McMaster has no reason to believe any of the allegations swirling around Columbia, "what it's done for us is it has focused us even harder on direct contact with the voters."

Sabato said changing public mores mean that talk of an affair, even if it turns out to be true, isn't as fatal to a campaign as it might have been 30 years ago.

Gov. Mark Sanford's recent infidelity, which became known last summer after his absence from the state, was the most recent incident that deadens any potential shock.

"There have been so many scandals that people finally figured out that politicians are just like them, only maybe worse," Sabato said.

"If you have a purity standard, many of your public offices will be permanently empty. As a public, we're all sadder and wiser today than we were decades ago."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.