COLUMBIA — South Carolina GOP governor candidate Nikki Haley is changing more than the face of state politics.
She has altered positions on tax pledges and on Republicans who voted for bank bailouts. She has also been meeting privately to reassure business leaders after her campaign called the state Chamber of Commerce a "big fan of bailouts and corporate welfare."
Republicans are quick to defend their nominee when asked about Haley's sometimes jarring shifts.
"I think that, respectfully, this is a case of trying to make the facts fit the story rather than the story fit the facts," said Joel Sawyer, the state Republican Party's executive director.
Haley's status as a rising star has diverted attention from her political record as she begins a race against Democrat Vincent Sheheen, a Senate colleague in the Legislature.
When Haley first ran for the state House in 2004, she told The State newspaper's editorial board she was against signing the Americans for Tax Reform "no new taxes" pledge.
"No one wants to see taxes raised, but I think that it would be closed-minded to sign a pledge," Haley told the Columbia paper's editors.
Yet in a debate in May, Haley claimed she had signed the group's pledge — even though Americans for Tax Reform had no pledge from Haley at the time of the debate. ATR state affairs director Patrick Gleason recalled Haley's campaign had spoken about becoming a pledge signer in March, but his group didn't receive her signed pledge until after the debate.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey explained: "Unlike Vince Sheheen, Nikki has been so consistently against tax increases that she figured there was no harm in making a pledge to do what her record already proves is her position."
Sawyer said that while Haley was in the Legislature, she saw pledge signers breaking the pledge and people who called themselves fiscal conservatives spending liberally.
"I think it makes sense to put some sort of assurance out that you're not going to behave in the same sort of way you've seen others vote around her," Sawyer said.
In an April interview with The Associated Press, Haley said no member of Congress who voted for the Wall Street and banking system bailout should be re-elected. What about U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who represents her district? "Absolutely not," Haley said. But earlier this month, Haley's campaign said Wilson's overall record merited support.
"In the case of Joe Wilson, she's supporting the conservative candidate in the race," Sawyer said.
"It's a hands-down easy choice," Godfrey said.
Haley told voters in the primary she was the only GOP candidate who had voted against using federal stimulus money.
But during the 2009 budget debate, Haley had voted to spend federal stimulus cash. She later voted against final passage of the budget and to sustain a veto of the stimulus cash. She called the earlier votes procedural. "What matters to the people of this state, what matters to the people of this country is the final vote that affects the people," she said.
Sheheen's campaign notes he led efforts to force Gov. Mark Sanford to take federal stimulus cash from the Obama Administration. On that point, Haley's campaign agrees.
"There's a day-and-night difference between Nikki Haley and Vince Sheheen on the stimulus," Godfrey said. "Sheheen is the biggest champion in the General Assembly of the Obama big spending approach."
Last month, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Sheheen in the primary, decided not to endorse Haley. The campaign brushed it off. "The state chamber is a big fan of bailouts and corporate welfare, so it's no surprise that they would prefer a liberal like Vincent Sheheen over a conservative like Nikki Haley," Godfrey said earlier this month.
Business leaders fear that Haley could have the same at-odds relationships with lawmakers that Sanford had, slowing progress on some of their interests. Haley has embarked on a series of close-door meetings to reassure them and introduce herself. People have come out of those meetings saying Haley makes a convincing case.
"There's a very big difference between the state Chamber of Commerce's board and actual business leaders," Godfrey said. He added that Haley "will meet directly with business leaders every day of the week to work on ways to improve our state's economy."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.