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June 23, 2009

An up-and-comer in South Carolina?

Coverage of the South Carolina governor’s race has been dominated by three Republicans who have announced or are planning to run: Attorney General Henry McMaster, lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, and congressman Gresham Barrett.

But a fourth announced candidate, state representative Nikki Haley, has the potential to make some waves in Palmetto State politics. The first Indian-American Republican to hold a state legislative seat in the country, she ousted a veteran incumbent in a 2004 primary to launch her political career.

Haley is an acolyte of the state’s current Gov. Mark Sanford, who has offered encouragement to her candidacy.

“I’m a small town girl who grew up from immigrant parents that taught me every day the importance of living in this country and the opportunities that came with that,” Haley said in an interview with POLITICO.

On paper, Haley offers a profile that national GOP consultants would dream about – a young (36), female, minority candidate who is effective at delivering a reform-minded conservative message. But in the early stages of her campaign, she’s shunned hiring brand-name advisers in favor of running a grassroots race focused on highlighting her pro-business record.

“I am going to stand as an example of a minority female who understands what it means to be pro-business, who understands that government should be small, who understands we don’t need government intrusion, that you need to be able to make strong, smart decisions for yourself,” Haley said.

Haley is an across-the-board conservative who touted her strong ratings from the National Rifle Association and the state chapter of the Club for Growth. She said she supported Sanford’s decision to turn down the government’s stimulus money earmarked for the state – arguing the state can’t afford to rack up debt.

And like Sanford, she sounded downright critical of some of her fellow Republicans in the state legislature on economic issues, accusing them of supporting excessive spending.

“When it comes to being conservative, I’ve got a record that shows that I’m not afraid to back down [from a fight]. I stand up for what I believe in, and I believe in fighting for things that are right for the people,” she said. “I’m very aware of who I work for, and it’s not anybody in the state House.”

Against three more politically-established candidates, she said she plans to remain financially competitive by raising money from the business community and a network of small donors.

Asked whether South Carolina is ready for a minority candidate as its chief executive, Haley said economic concerns would trump any latent racial bias in the state.

“At the end of the day, problems that people have with their wallets and problems that people have when they lose their jobs cross those racial boundaries. And right now, people are very connected in the fact they don’t like government, no matter what race you are.”

Haley starts out the race as a distinct underdog, but she’s worth watching closely as the gubernatorial primary progresses. At a time when the Republican party has been searching for up-and-coming leaders who aren’t white men, she certainly fits the bill.

“You will see the party grow when you see younger, more energized, and more diverse people get involved. We’ve got to show them why the Republican party is an attractive party, but before we do that, we need to do that and look at our identity and make sure we understand who we are,” Haley said.