By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

CONWAY, S.C. -- Even in a state that's accustomed to two-fisted politics, this year's Republican race for governor stands out. As the contenders barreled across South Carolina in a mad frenzy before Tuesday's primary, they confronted at every turn the salacious accusations of adultery swirling around Nikki Haley, the woman who has rocketed to the lead.

Lt. Gov. André Bauer, carrying a backpack stuffed with trinkets to give to children, arrived at a diner in rural Union County to offer hope of replacing the shuttered Disney factory down the road. Yet he faced, and deflected, questions about his ex-campaign consultant who alleged an affair with Haley. Then, climbing into an RV shrink-wrapped with his likeness, he was off to the next county and more questions.

Attorney General Henry McMaster, stumping with a former governor at a brunch spot in Greenville, cast himself as the only adult in a field of adolescents. He asked Susan Bailey and her girlfriends for their votes, but moments later they confessed to a reporter that they had recently decided, over prayer, to go with Haley. "Not because she's a she," said Bailey, 55, a homemaker. "She hasn't bowed down. She hasn't gotten angry. She can handle it like a gentleman, but she's a lady."

And when Rep. J. Gresham Barrett strode into Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville for red-meat politicking, ready to talk about his Arizona-style immigration plan, a man at the first table asked the question that has sucked up so much oxygen here.

"Do you believe she's been, what is it, unfaithful?" he asked.

"No, sir, I don't," Barrett said, shaking the man's hand and quickly moving on.

From the Bible-thumping Upcountry to the breezy beaches, Palmetto State Republicans have become transfixed by allegations in a campaign that has devolved into perhaps the nastiest brawl in a generation. Haley has fended off unsubstantiated claims from two political operatives that she had extramarital affairs with them. She has swatted away remarks from a state senator who called her a "raghead." And Haley, every bit as scrappy as she is steely, has been running circles around her opponents -- all while propped up in stiletto heels.

The other candidates have bigger names and longer résumés, but Haley, the only woman among them, built a sizable lead by making sport of busting the old-boy fraternity that she says dominates, even corrupts, South Carolina politics.

"When you turn around and threaten their power and you threaten their money, they turn around and push back," Haley, a fast-talking and polished campaigner, told a crowd here on Saturday night. "But what they don't understand is I have a strong faith, I have a strong spine, and I have a strong husband that puts on a military uniform every day."

The couple of hundred Republicans huddled outside an old barn along the railroad tracks in downtown Conway erupted, just as her supporters did after she delivered the same line 230 miles west at a hot-wing bar in Greenville the night before, leaving political observers to wonder whether all the mudslinging is only cementing Haley's popularity.

Haley's campaign says internal polls suggest she has maintained, if not widened, her lead. A few weeks ago, languishing in fourth place, she hoped to just make the expected June 22 runoff. But now she is talking about winning outright with more than 50 percent.

Haley, 38, has been a state representative since 2004 -- long enough, she says, to know the problems but not to be "part of the fraternity party." An accountant, she promises a take-no-prisoners approach to the state budget.