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10.16.11

Kissing Nikki Haley’s Ring

A steady stream of 2012 Republican hopefuls has been blazing a trail to the South Carolina governor’s door. She talks to Zev Chafets about what she wants from candidates—and rules out being veep.

The South Carolina Governor’s Mansion is a stately, white stucco federal-style building surrounded by magnolias and towering oaks, in Columbia’s Arsenal Hill neighborhood. Its current occupant, Nikki Haley; her husband, Mike; and their two kids, usually rattle around in the 15-room house, but lately they have been hosting an ongoing pajama party. “Everybody is welcome,” she told me on the phone last week.

“Everybody” is actually an elite group, the candidates (and their spouses) who are running in the South Carolina GOP primary. Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, recently spent the night in early October. Ann Romney slept over a few days earlier. Rick and Anita Perry have a tentative booking for the end of October. Michele Bachmann, an old friend, has been there twice. And Haley is leaving the light on for Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and the other contenders.

Governor Haley charmingly downplays this as simple as simple Southern hospitality, a chance for hardworking candidates to chill and chat over dinner about family and personal matters. “For example,” she says, “Michele and I share a professional background—she’s a tax attorney and I’m an accountant—so we visit about that.”

Light banter about the depredations of the IRS might be the governor’s idea of a relaxing evening, but for her guests, a night at Chez Haley is inevitably a business opportunity. She has promised to endorse a candidate in the primary, and she would be a powerful ally. After less than a year in office she is popular, especially where in counts most, with the Tea Party wing of the GOP base.

Haley is aware that she is being courted, and she knows what she wants in return. “My criterion for endorsing a candidate is going to be based on state-related issues,” she told me. “I will support the person who will do the most for the interests of South Carolina.”

The governor’s wish list is specific. The most pressing issue is getting rid of a lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board against Boeing’s decision to build its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft at a facility in North Charleston. The NLRB charges that opening an assembly line in South Carolina, which is a right-to-work state, is an act of retaliation by Boeing against the unions in the company’s home state of Washington. Haley has denounced the NLRB as a “rogue agency” and describes the suit as “un-American.” The NLRB is appointed by the president of the United States, and she wants it front and center in the South Carolina primary.

Also high on her agenda priorities is ending the federal government ban on fossil-fuel exploration. “We have reserves of oil offshore, and at the very least we’d like to see a new study of the environmental impact of tapping it,” she says.

Haley also wants to see the repeal of Obamacare, with the issue returned to the states. “The present law is unconstitutional,” she says. “I don’t care what other states do, as long as it doesn’t affect South Carolina.” She is also an adamant supporter of tax reduction and reform.

“Michele and I share a professional background—she's a tax attorney and I'm an accountant—so we visit about that.”

It is likely that every Republican candidate in this year’s field would support these objectives without any gubernatorial prompting, but Haley is after more than agreement. She wants to nominate someone who will get things done. “There is no such thing as a perfect candidate,” she told me. “But there can be a perfect fighter, and that’s what we are going to need to turn this country around.” She values a strong business background (good for Romney and Cain) and says that strength and leadership trump executive experience (which should be welcome news to Bachmann).

Haley is one of the rising young stars of the Republican right, and she has been mentioned as a potential candidate for vice president. Could it be that while she is auditioning candidates at her Big House sleepovers, she is also offering a glimpse of her own qualifications? The governor says it is out of the question: under no circumstances would she accept a place on the national ticket. She expects to run for reelection in 2014. She has lots of time to plan ahead; she doesn’t turn 50 until January 2022.

Meanwhile, she and her houseguests are focused on this coming January. Since the GOP primary was established in South Carolina in 1980, the winner has always gone on to win the party nomination. And every Republican candidate who has scored a gubernatorial endorsement has triumphed in the state. That alone is enough to ensure that Nikki Haley’s spare bedroom will remain a hot reservation between now and the Palmetto primary.