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The Point

For Better or Worse, Nikki Haley Is GOP Rising Star

Jun 10, 2010 – 3:26 PM
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(June 10) -- After her impressive showing in Tuesday's South Carolina primary, Republicans are hailing Nikki Haley as a rising star in the party. It's a term that's been applied to other candidates who've made a splash in recent elections. Few have lived up to the hype.

Technically, Haley hasn't won yet. She fell just short of 50 percent in a race against three more-experienced politicians -- all men -- for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. She faces a June 22 runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett. The Republican Governors Association issued a statement congratulating Haley and calling the outcome of the runoff "all but certain." In other words, the Washington Post's David Weigel said, Barrett should "stand down" and let Haley get on with what's likely to be a successful general election campaign against Democrat Vincent Sheehan.

"Message: Republicans are ready to celebrate their newest star," Weigel wrote on his Right Now blog.

Nikki Haley
Rich Glickstein, The State / AP
State Rep. Nikki Haley appears to be on the fast track to succeeding fellow Republican Mark Sanford as governor of South Carolina.

Given the increasingly bizarre nature of Palmetto State politics, there's no reason to think things will calm down between now and Election Day, Nov. 2. In the days before the primary, Haley had to repeatedly deny claims by two men -- a political consultant who supports her and a lobbyist who worked for one of her rivals -- that they'd had flings with the married mother of two. On top of that, state Sen. Jake Knotts called Haley, whose parents are Indian immigrants, a "raghead."

Haley had kept a low profile in the state House since she was elected in 2004. "Two or three months ago I was 'Nikki who?'" she said last week. Now that she's being touted nationally as a new face of the GOP, there's no telling what kind of dirt opponents might throw at her during the next five months.

So far, the attacks have only made Haley stronger. Sarah Palin, whose endorsement helped power Haley's sudden rise in the polls, jumped to her defense.

Palin is one of those Republican rising stars who went on to soar even higher -- reaching rock star status even though the former half-term Alaska governor holds no elected office. Another of Haley's biggest backers, Gov. Mark Sanford, was once considered a potential GOP presidential candidate for 2012. His tearful admission last summer that he'd been having an affair with a woman in Argentina turned him into a prime example of a rising star that crashes and burns.

Internet searches for terms such as "Republican rising star" or "Democratic rising star" turn up many other reminders of high hopes laid low.

Conservatives -- especially tea party activists -- cheered Scott Brown when he ended the Kennedy dynasty in Massachusetts with an upset victory in the special Senate election early this year. He was seen as the 41st Republican vote that would deny Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the chamber. But many true believers soured on Brown after he sided with President Barack Obama on several issues, including a jobs bill and financial regulation.

The one-time Cosmo centerfold model "still has an air of celebrity about him. But a pinup boy for the tea party he is not," The New York Times noted.

"His career as a senator of the people lasted slightly longer than the shelf life of milk," one tea party leader complained to The Boston Globe.

The next "great right hope" to emerge was tea party favorite Rand Paul, who upset the Republican establishment's candidate in Kentucky's U.S. Senate primary last month. The day after the libertarian-minded political rookie's victory, he got tangled up in a controversy over how much power the government should have over private businesses.

After a series of increasingly uncomfortable TV interviews, Paul declared flatly that he did not want to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and became only the third scheduled guest in 62 years to cancel an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Paul resurfaced in the national media this week, going on Neil Cavuto's Fox News show to charge that he's been "vilified" by liberals. Meanwhile, the libertarian website Reason is accusing him of "slinking away from his libertarian roots."

Also last month, an Iraq War vet endorsed by Palin flamed out in Idaho's 1st Congressional District primary.

"Vaughn Ward, who looked like a GOP rising star, has hit one bump in the road after another," reported National Review Online's Jim Geraghty. That was putting it mildly.

Among other things, Ward suggested that Puerto Rico is a foreign country, statements on his website appeared to be plagiarized from other lawmakers' pages, and a video showed the Republican lifting large chunks of Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention speech in an address to supporters. Ward ended up losing badly to Raul Labrador.

It's not just Republicans. For Democrats, too, being called a "rising star" can turn out to be the kiss of death -- like being al-Qaida's No. 3 man or Spinal Tap's drummer, or appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, once considered a rising Democratic star, just dropped his bid for re-election after one term," the aptly named Political blog reported in April. Ritter's support sank after he cut education spending and ordered state workers to take furlough days because of a budget shortfall.

Also in Colorado, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune.

"The politician who just over a year ago was considered a Democratic rising star is now resented, even reviled, by some who were once his biggest fans," according to the Denver Post. His uninvited entry into the Democratic primary to challenge incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet has angered many party insiders. Gov. Ritter appointed Bennet instead of Romanoff to fill the Senate seat in 2009 after Ken Salazar became interior secretary.

"In Colorado, a former rising star is as welcome as space junk" was the headline on Dan Balz's Washington Post story about the bitter run-up to the state's August primary.

Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana stunned just about everyone in February when he announced he would retire because he'd had enough of the extreme partisanship in Washington. Like Ritter and Romanoff, Bayh was "once the rising star of the Democratic Party."

But there is hope for rising stars gone awry. Consider the saga of Bobby Jindal.

Last year, the governor of Louisiana was chosen to speak for his party in the Republican response to the president's speech about the economy. Before his appearance, the young Indian-American governor was being billed as the GOP's version of Obama. Afterward, everyone was comparing him to Kenneth the Page from the NBC sitcom "30 Rock" because of his "pedantic, sing-songy" delivery.

What a difference a year -- and an environmental disaster off the coast of Louisiana -- makes.

Jindal is all over TV these days, projecting the image of a strong, aggressive crisis manager in the midst of the BP oil well disaster.

"Nationally, the spill has offered Jindal a rare second chance to make a good impression on the big stage, a year and half after his dreadful debut prompted many out-of-towners to write him off for good," wrote the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Stephanie Grace.

From Kenneth the Page to Bobby the Governor. Jindal is that most unusual of rising stars -- one that gets a second act.
Filed under: Nation, Politics, Top Stories, The Point
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