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New on the block

world Updated: Dec 17, 2011 22:35 IST
Ned Martel
Highlight Story

On a recent morning, cheers echoed inside a small gym as Nikki Haley bounded before Orangeburg middle-schoolers and quizzed boisterous students on the state bird. She was more like a fun mom than a governor, until she got quiet. Fallen from favour after 11 months in office, Haley let the group of mostly African American students know that she understood politics at the playground level.

She widened her brown eyes when describing her childhood in nearby Bamberg as the daughter of a Sikh businessman who wears a turban. “Every one of you has seen someone who has been made fun of for the way they look, for the way they dress, for the way they talk,” the governor said. In third grade, she said, her peers told her to make a choice: “We’re not going to play with you until you pick one.” A side, they meant: Was she black, or was she white?

On Friday morning, Haley revealed she would back former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s candidacy, as she did in 2008. But the question remained whether her endorsement will matter in her own state.

Within her party, Haley eludes factions, slips confines — to the point that former allies wonder whether her main agenda is her own advancement. She promotes herself as a party of one, yanking her stubborn state toward new days and new ways. Her ways.

In person, she cuts an indefatigable and glamourous figure. She eschews a Church Lady mien for something more Real Housewife, fit and attractive. And she says often how her job is sales, selling corporate chief executives on South Carolina with many lures.

The morning after her Orangeburg school visit, sitting in her ornate Statehouse offices Haley boasted that her state is different simply because she’s running it. The Confederate battle flag still waves outside the building, and yet she doesn’t want it taken down and doesn't worry that any CEO she solicits to hire South Carolinians will balk at this Civil War vestige.

“They don't have to ask that question because you are looking at a state that just elected a 38-year-old Indian female,” she said. “That says everything we need it to say.” Early in Haley’s underdog campaign last year, no one was returning her calls, she said. She faced three opponents. She was yoked to a sullied ex-governor.

Her own semi-scandalous sideshow erupted and abated in the summer of 2010, when her onetime campaign consultant alleged (and never proved) that years before, the two had had a messy affair.

Now, a year after her narrow win, the South Carolina governor is withering in the polls, with only one-third of voters surveyed approving of her job performance — and barely half of all Republicans polled. And yet Haley sees the Republican Party’s top presidential prospects bounding to her doorstep with the same ardour once reserved for then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose backing was crucial in Haley’s election. Haley has played “hostess” (her word) as she welcomed for overnight visits Rep. Michele Bachmann, Newt and Callista Gingrich and Ann Romney.

To be a player in the presidential derby could raise her above the state-level fracas. But Romney will now embark on a tour of South Carolina beside a governor whose popularity has cratered. Haley’s immediate task is to push down the number of unemployed, 11 percent of the state’s residents. It’s clearly her chosen measurement for her own job performance, and her prospects brighten as employment climbs.

Her Indian heritage is crucial to her ambition; she solicits donations from Indian American groups nationwide, including in Washington. But she plays up her complexity: She talked movingly about her conversion to Christianity and next, about her passion for Joan Jett. She has jumped on the national anti-bullying bandwagon, but insisted that her efforts are separate from those of gay activists promoting tolerance among kids.

Haley is unabashed about using her identity to push herself higher, above the muck of the usual conflicts and toward more national debates. Haley recruited a savvy adviser — Christian Soura, who has an eyebrower-raiser on his resume: He served under Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who once ran the national Democratic Party.

“I call him Mr. Fix-It,” Haley said, who has made Soura her deputy chief of staff. It’s Soura’s skills that are most often cited among lobbyists and activists in the capital when noting Haley’s staunchness, especially during her many news conferences.

With a book launch planned for April, Haley carefully associates herself with the GOP’s other emerging leaders. And as a dealmaker who must get past local underminers before she gets any political promotion, Haley has decided on a governing style. “Forceful with a smile. Forceful with a smile,” she said, describing her mantra under fire.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.