If Mitt Romney was the biggest loser from tonight’s South Carolina primary, then Gov. Nikki Haley was a close second. The two could hardly have been glued together more on the campaign trail — Romney even sang “Happy Birthday” to the governor on stage during a rally early this week.
Haley endorsed Romney early on, and her support was touted as a game-changer by strategists in his Boston headquarters. But those closer to the ground in the Palmetto State warned Romney people that the Haley endorsement came with baggage.
Former governor Mark Sanford, her immediate predecessor and political mentor, was neutral in the primary. But he said last month that he wondered “if she’ll be more of a liability to Romney than she is an asset. She’s taken her eye off the ball and lost focus.”
Tea-party leaders I spoke with said the governor has dropped her original emphasis on cutting government spending and accommodated herself to the legislative barons who used to clash with Governor Sanford.
Recent polls have shown Haley hovering around the 40 percent mark in public approval, and there is evidence her bonding with Romney was of no help.
A Monmouth University poll earlier this week found that 89 percent of likely voters were familiar with the governor’s endorsement of Romney. So far so good. But 71 percent said it made no difference in deciding whom to vote for. Of the rest, 21 percent said the endorsement made them less likely to pull the lever for Mitt, and only 8 percent said it made them more likely.
Governor Romney’s campaign will now leave this poor South Carolina primary showing in the rear-view mirror as it heads to Florida. But Governor Haley is only a year into her term and looking increasingly adrift and vulnerable. Maybe it’s time she sat down with the tea-party leaders who helped propel her to a surprising victory in the 2010 governor’s race and saw what can be done to reset her administration.