COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tea party favorite Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for governor whose campaign gained momentum with recent endorsements from Sarah Palin and Jenny Sanford, vehemently denied allegations Monday that she had an inappropriate relationship with a political blogger several years ago.
Haley, a legislator vying to become the state's first female chief executive and replace disgraced Gov. Mark Sanford, called the claim posted on the blogger's site Monday a smear. She questioned the timing two weeks before the primary, saying it was an attempt to derail her campaign, once considered a long-shot. And she called on primary opponents to renounce the tactics.
"I have been 100 percent faithful to my husband throughout our 13 years of marriage. This claim against me is categorically and totally false," Haley, a 38-year-old mother of two, said in a statement. "It is quite simply South Carolina politics at its worst."
The claim came from Will Folks, a conservative blogger who previously served as Sanford's spokesman. Folks said the relationship took place in 2007 when he did communications work for Haley, including writing speeches and news releases. He offered no proof of it and refused to go into any details.
"I'm not going to paint pictures," he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on the condition his statements would not be published before the allegation was posted on his blog early Monday.
Folks pleaded guilty to criminal domestic violence in 2005 and left the Sanford administration around that time. He is now a political consultant and runs FITSNews.com, a conservative site that features occasionally insightful commentary, thinly sourced stories of state political intrigue and photos of women in bikinis.
Folks' allegation comes nearly a year after the governor famously vanished from the state for five days, reappearing from a trip to Argentina to admit to an affair with a woman he later called his "soul mate." The scandal ended Sanford's marriage and led to calls for his resignation. He is term-limited and leaves office in January; in years past he had backed Haley's political aspirations, and his ex-wife campaigned with her earlier this month.
Political scientist Neal Thigpen said he thinks most political activists won't believe Folks, but some tea party supporters could be swayed to support another candidate.
"It seems to me the whole thing is designed to stop Rep. Haley's momentum," said Thigpen, a Francis Marion University professor. "If it's Nikki's word against Will Folks', I know who I'd believe. ... But something like this can do her great damage."
Haley, an accountant and three-term legislator, is in a tight race for the GOP nomination with Congressman Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
As word of the purported relationship spread across the state and on the Internet, Haley went on at least three radio shows. Callers mostly backed Haley and liked her forceful denial. They talked about South Carolina's history of unusually dirty politics and its reputation for what's been repeatedly called a "good ol' boy" network. Comments on the Internet were similar, though Folks' website had more support for him.
She finished her public schedule at a Greenville Chamber of Commerce forum for gubernatorial candidates telling the business crowd that the allegations were "absolutely not true. ... I will tell you that if anything, I am more focused and motivated than I have ever been to run in this race."
The moderator asked whether there was any evidence of an affair. "No. I mean there's no evidence," Haley said. "These are distractions. That's all they are."
Earlier in the day, Haley had suggested her opponents in the race were tied to the affair allegation. But on the debate stage, Haley dropped that and challenged the two GOP challengers there, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Attorney General Henry McMaster to denounce any smear tactics in the race.
They both did.
Several people in Haley's hometown of Lexington in the central part of the state said the allegations wouldn't affect their vote.
Benjamin Partin, 20, said campaigns use as much negativity as they can in the final stretch of primary season.
"You can't expect who's in there to be perfect," said Partin, a restaurant worker who was still undecided on who to vote for. "We had Sanford in there, after all."
Folks, who said he wasn't working for any campaign, claimed he went public because political adversaries were leaking proof of it to the media to impugn his reputation and destroy her.
"The truth in this case is what it is," he wrote. "Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki."
Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, denounced the claim on Facebook, and said she had warned Haley that she and her family would be targeted.
"That, unfortunately, is the nature of the beast in politics today – especially for conservative 'underdog' candidates who surge in the polls and threaten to shake things up so government can be put back on the side of the people," Palin wrote.
Palin said she spoke with Haley and told her to hang in there.
Folks said he owes apologies only to Haley and her family, and to his own wife for failing to reveal the relationship earlier in their marriage. He wed in 2008.
Folks left the Sanford administration about the time he received a 30-day suspended sentence for domestic violence. Folks kicked open the door at a home he shared with a lobbyist and shoved her into a piece of furniture, police said.
Folks had little political experience before joining Sanford's 2002 campaign. When Sanford won, the governor made the ball-cap wearing, alternative rock band-playing son of a college professor his spokesman.
State GOP chair Karen Floyd said Folks' claim was an unsubstantiated personal attack.
"South Carolinians deserve a higher level of political discourse than this, and they frankly deserve a press corps that focuses on real, substantive issues rather than on Internet rumor mongering," Floyd said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.