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Vying for Haley’s support

Vying for Haley’s support

The battle among 2016 GOP contenders to win over resurgent South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has begun.

Two of the early front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are visiting the Palmetto State this week. Both of them plan to call upon the governor, who won reelection last year.

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“I would think that, of all the people exploring a candidacy, they would all probably just kill to have her endorsement,” said Richard Quinn, a longtime GOP consultant in the state.

Bush held a news conference on domestic violence with Haley on Tuesday and will attend a breakfast in the state on Wednesday morning. 

Walker is expected to visit the governor when he travels through four South Carolina cities on Thursday and Friday.

The attention both men are paying to Haley shows just how much her political fortunes have improved in crucial South Carolina.

The underdog victor in a bitter 2010 race, Haley found herself on the defensive often during her first term. 

An enormous data breach at the state’s Department of Revenue resulted in personal information from almost four million people being exposed. In 2013, she was fined $3,500 by the state ethics commission for failing to disclose the addresses of eight campaign donors. 

Her relationship with the state legislature was often poor, and in one late 2011 poll, her job approval rating fell below 35 percent.

But she rebounded to win handily last November. A poll last month from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) firm found her job approval at 51 percent, with 38 percent disapproval. PPP noted that these were “the highest numbers we’ve found for her since she took office” in 2011.

Haley endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, though it was former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) who won the state and broke its decades-long perfect streak of backing the eventual winner in Republican presidential primaries.

This time around, the potential vice presidential pick has no plans to endorse anytime soon, as she told The Washington Post in an interview last month. “I think what I’ll do is watch.” 

That ambiguity leaves people scrutinizing her for any clues as to her leanings — and Walker would appear to hold some early advantages, in ways both large and small.

Haley and Walker are tight enough friends for her to have tweeted a selfie of the two of them on their way to the White House last month, and she has often referred to the Wisconsin governor as a friend. 

The two even had a light-hearted public bet on college football at the start of last year: Haley’s South Carolina Gamecocks beat Walker’s Wisconsin Badgers in the 2014 Capital One Bowl, and Haley noted on Facebook that she was looking forward to claiming her winnings of “beer, brats and cheese.” 

But the professional relationship between the two governors has a more serious side, too. When Haley launched her reelection campaign in August 2013, Walker endorsed her on stage. 

In doing so, he was repaying a favor that Haley had done him. When he was facing the possibility of being recalled in 2012, the South Carolinian traveled to Wisconsin to sing his praises.

Haley, who has described herself as a “union buster,” paid homage to Walker’s willingness to take on the public sector unions, a move which she asserted had helped turn the state around.

“Are you going to reward the courage he showed … or are you going to go back to where it was?” she said during one appearance.

Controversial South Carolina political blogger Will Folks claimed to The Hill that he “knows for a fact” that aides for Walker and Haley have talked about staffing decisions for his campaign in the state. 

He also predicted that, in the end, “I think she endorses him — if he manages to stay among the front-runners. She’d be latching on to a viable candidate. And her endorsement this time is worth something. In 2012, it was not.” 

Some will view Folks’s observations with skepticism; he came into infamy during Haley’s first run for governor, when he claimed to have had an affair with her. She has vigorously denied the allegation. 

Other consultants and analysts in the state note the parallels between Haley and Walker but caution that she also has strong connections to other likely contenders in the 2016 field.

“If you look at a young governor who has to deal with union issues, there’s a comparison,” GOP strategist Chip Felkel said.

But he added that she has a “pretty long-standing relationship with Jeb [Bush] in terms of support on the issues, and she has a long relationship with [Sen. Lindsey] Graham.”

Still, Haley has sounded distinctly lukewarm about a Graham run for the presidency.

“South Carolina won’t automatically go to Senator Graham just because he’s from South Carolina,” she told the Post. “But I think he’ll make a good effort of it, and we’ll see what happens.”

Bush seems to have an edge over the state’s senior senator for her support. In that same interview, Haley fondly recalled how Bush had offered her encouragement at a time in 2010, when her chances of even winning the GOP gubernatorial nomination looked slim.

Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University, also notes it is early, and “it is a little hard to tell” who Haley might be leaning toward.

“She has done a lot with several of these Republican governors because of the Republican Governors Association, and we have had a number of them down here doing events with her.”

As long as Haley’s numbers stay strong, there will likely be plenty more of those events to come.