"When I first heard about it, it hit me right in my gut," Romney said in a Monday phone interview with CNN. "My nerve endings went haywire. It's so upsetting when you know someone can say something like that about a woman, and not have any kind of reaction. It's so unacceptable. Nikki is a great girl and has been a great governor."
The Democrat, Vincent Sheheen, made the comment at a campaign event late last week in Florence. In the midst of attacking Haley's education record, Sheheen stumbled over his words and told the crowd, "We are going to escort whore out the door."
The slip-of-the-tongue was clearly accidental, and Sheheen immediately corrected himself, saying, "We're going to escort her out the door." But when some in the audience picked up on the verbal faux pas and started applauding, Sheheen grinned and laughed along with people in the crowd. Video of the event went viral.
Sheheen apologized for the moment in a radio interview on Monday. "But if anybody heard, and certainly my words were garbled ... I apologize because I don't want to send that message to anybody," he said, according to The State newspaper.
Haley leads Sheheen by double digits in recent polling and is expected to win a second term next week. Romney, who came to know Haley during the 2012 presidential campaign when she was one of the Mitt Romney's top GOP supporters, said she spoke to the governor by phone about the flare-up.
Romney said the incident is discouraging to women who want to be in the political arena. Haley, she noted, weathered attacks on her personal life and her Indian-American heritage in past campaigns.
"We need to make sure we have a safe place so that other women can feel like they can do this and these kinds of things aren't going to happen to them," Romney said. "You get so sick of saying there is bias out there, but if a Republican had said this, it would be blowing up in their face like nobody's business. Where is EMILY's List? Where is N.O.W.? Where are they?"
Romney aides made her available for an interview on Sheheen's comments. Her remarks come amid heightened interest in whether her husband will launch a third bid for the White House. She said the family has no timeline for making a decision.
"A lot of people are talking about it, but honestly Mitt and I aren't," Romney said. "Mitt has been very clear. Events may change. We don't see them changing. But you are never going to say never. Right now we are looking to see these other candidates come forward."
She offered a larger critique of the so-called Republican "war on women" — a campaign strategy that Democrats used to devastating effect against Romney in 2012. Romney argued that the message has lost its potency in 2014, though Democrats say women's issues have kept them in the hunt in several tight Senate races from Colorado to North Carolina.
"People are saying, this isn't working anymore," Romney said. "It was a ploy in the last election. I think they thought it was effective, and they are trying again this cycle. But I hope the electorate is getting tired of these broad brush statements that work on people's emotions, that are inaccurate, that try to marginalize one candidate or another. I get even more upset when I see other women trying to use these tactics and approaches. We have to be better than that."
Romney said women voters care about a broad array of issues — national security, the economy, education — beyond just social issues like abortion rights and access to contraception.