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Haley expected to cruise to GOP nod in S.C. governor's race

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Producer
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Nasty fight for GOP's Nikki Haley
  • Nikki Haley is hoping to become South Carolina's first female governor
  • Haley is front-runner in Tuesday's GOP primary runoff after nasty campaign
  • U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett has struggled to find ways to blunt Haley's momentum
  • Haley has faced infidelity allegations, ethnic slur, questions about faith

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) -- The Republican gubernatorial runoff in South Carolina started with a bang, but it appears the race will go out with a whimper.

The closing month of the four-way GOP primary took a particularly nasty tone, even by South Carolina's famously bare-knuckle standards, as front-runner Nikki Haley withstood multiple allegations of infidelity and an ethnic slur hurled at her by a self-described "redneck" lawmaker and political foe.

Haley, hoping to become the state's first female governor, nearly cruised to a breathtaking win. She captured just under half the vote and almost avoided a two-week runoff against the second-place finisher, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.

But it's been a somewhat sleepy two weeks in the Palmetto state ever since as Haley kept relentlessly to her reform message and Barrett struggled to find ways to blunt her momentum.

South Carolina is one of four states holding runoffs Tuesday -- Mississippi, North Carolina and Utah voters also are deciding contests.

South Carolina drama tops four runoffs on Tuesday

Barrett and his supporters, aware that any personal attacks against Haley likely would backfire in the same way they did in the primary, stuck mainly to talking points and highlighted issue-based contrasts with Haley.

The campaign circulated daily e-mails to reporters titled "Honest Differences," pledging that Barrett would be superior at creating jobs and "breaking the gridlock" in the state House of Representatives. But the mystery surrounding Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alvin Greene grabbed much of the media attention, leaving the Barrett campaign fighting for headlines and pictures on the local news.

Barrett occasionally referred to Haley as "the Sanford candidate," hoping to peg her to the scandal-tainted governor, Mark Sanford, who shares Haley's zeal for reduced government spending but also has a broken relationship with legislators.

Attacking Sanford in a Republican primary though remains a dubious tack. Despite his spectacular implosion last summer when he admitted to an extramarital affair live on national television, he remains popular among grass-roots activists in the state who appreciate his fiscally conservative principles.

Barrett took some more controversial shots at Haley, but only around the margins.

He made repeated references to "character," and he stressed his Christian faith. Some Haley backers saw that as code language to evangelicals who might be uneasy with her religious background. Haley was raised Sikh but converted to Christianity at age 24. She attends a Methodist church but visits Sikh services with her family from time to time.

Several leaders in the faith community, including a few Barrett supporters, floated questions about whether Haley has been straightforward about her faith.

Several pastors and influential Christian leaders told CNN they had encountered people who wondered if Haley was practicing both Sikhism and Christianity at the same time. But few predicted the rumors would affect her candidacy.

Joe Mack, public policy director at the South Carolina Baptist Convention and a neutral observer in the race, said he heard such questions from the faith community.

"There is some idea that maybe she does some of both," Mack told CNN last week. "Pastors have raised the question with me. But if people don't know about her faith at this point, and haven't formed an opinion, I don't believe it will have much an effect."

In conversations with churchgoers in the evangelical-heavy Greenville-Spartanburg area Sunday, few said Haley's religious background would be a factor in their vote.

And the hallmarks of nefarious South Carolina campaigning were nowhere to be seen: No one had seen an anonymous flier papered to his or her car, and no one had received a suspicious phone call or push poll.

The Barrett campaign did score a late hit against Haley after it was revealed that she earned more than $40,000 from an engineering firm for consulting work while serving in the state Legislature, income she failed to disclose on state ethics filings.

The firm told CNN that Haley was hired for her "access" and "connections," the sort of insider coziness that Haley rails against daily on the campaign trail. The State Ethics Commission has said she did not violate any laws, and Haley recused herself from votes involving company business.

The transparency push may be too little too late for Barrett, as it appears Haley is headed for a comfortable win Tuesday, though few expect her margin of victory to be as large as it was on June 8.

But supporters of Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic nominee, already are preparing to pounce on the same issues in the general election: The website has already been registered. "Coming soon to SC!" visitors are told.