West Ashley native makes her mark in demanding job of bank president

Drew Putt

Leroy Burnell

Welcome to front-runner world, Nikki Haley.

Since Sister Sarah endorsed the second coming of Sanford, giving Haley's poll numbers a healthy spike, the Republican gubernatorial candidate has had a target on her back.

Just in the past week, she has been criticized for missing more than half her votes in the state House this year (shades of Gresham Barrett), forced to admit -- along with Henry McMaster and Andre Bauer -- that a tax cut was bad (gasp), and now she's been slapped with the scarlet letter.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford spokesman, political blogger and one-time Haley consultant Will Folks says he had sexual relations with that woman.

If this is how it is for front-runners, you have to figure Haley longs for the days of being a dark horse.

In a corner?

Win or lose, Haley has at least broken one glass ceiling in South Carolina politics: Now it's not just the guys who have to deal with what Bill Clinton staffers used to call "bimbo eruptions."

Initially, Camp Haley handled the storm pretty well, issuing a "100 percent" denial. It helped her cause somewhat that her alleged bimbo is already controversial in some circles and he didn't share any proof. The problem for Haley now is she's made Folks mad and forced him -- if he is going to save his credibility -- to prove it.

If she has to back off even a little -- like, say, issuing a 99 percent denial -- she's toast.

It's no secret Haley is not the GOP's favorite candidate. Most Statehouse colleagues consider her little more than a third term for Sanford. It takes a deft touch to steer this cumbersome state government, and Haley -- like Sanford -- drives like the captain of the Exxon Valdez.

But don't put any clout into the rumors that Folks has been dispatched by the good ol' boys. For years, he has been a one-man Haley fan club. And, truth is, the rumor about those two has been around for years.

You can't sling a dead campaign in Columbia without hitting on rumors of illicit he-ing and she-ing, and many major news outlets in the state had checked this one out. But there was nothing that brought it to the level of a story.

Until Folks spoke up.

More to come?

On Tuesday, Haley lost Round Two to Folks, who says he's been consulting with her staff for a couple of weeks about how to handle this story.

And he suggests proof could be coming. Those are serious charges, but Camp Haley wouldn't respond to them, instead choosing to shop results of a weekend poll that claims she is 20 points ahead of her nearest primary competitor -- McMaster, the only Republican candidate who hasn't been pulled into this.

A poll taken before this story broke isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Why waste our time?

Late Tuesday, Haley took the less decisive, but politically smarter, tack of saying she would no longer respond to these "distractions."

Boy, if only Sanford had taken that approach.

But it sounded a lot less forceful than Monday's denial, and gave the ball back to Folks.

And if he has proof, Haley soon may literally follow in her political mentor's footsteps.