GREENVILLE, S.C. - Sex and scandal are again in South Carolina's political air.
A year ago, it was Gov. Mark Sanford's tearful confession of secretly skipping out of the country to rendezvous with an Argentine woman he called his soul mate. On Monday, it was a political blogger's claim of an affair with a rising star in the governor's race: state Rep. Nikki Haley. Three years ago, it was the state treasurer whose affinity for cocaine had him facing federal charges and prison time.
At a debate Monday night, Haley offered what she expected would be the final volleys in a he-said, she-said match that started 13 hours earlier when Will Folks wrote on his blog: "Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki."
"It is absolutely not true," Haley emphatically told the crowd. She'd said the same much of the day in a statement after Folks' allegation spread around the political sphere: "I have been 100 percent faithful to my husband throughout our 13 years of marriage. This claim against me is categorically and totally false."
And as reporters pressed her on the evidence that Folks claimed existed or why he would make a false claim, Haley appeared to shut further questions down.
"I'm telling you there is nothing there," she said. "I'm not going to let this distraction to get to me. It's not worth my time."
She was on at least three talk shows with big audiences in Columbia, Greenville and Charleston denying Folks' claim. Sympathetic callers filled lines in the hours that followed with praise for how she handled the matter.
Folks is a fixture in the state's rough-and-tumble politics and has worked for Sanford and Haley, an accountant and three-term legislator in a tight race for the GOP nomination with Congressman Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Folks was Sanford's spokesman in his 2002 campaign and when he took office. Folks left in 2005 and not long after pleaded guilty to a criminal domestic charge involving his fiance.
He is 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. Haley hired him in 2007 to write speeches and news releases. Folks said that's when the vaguely described "physical relationship" with Haley took place. He offered no proof and refused to give details.
"I'm not going to paint pictures," he said.
It was only a year ago that Sanford famously vanished from the state for five days, claiming to be on the Appalachian Trail and reappearing from a trip to Argentina to admit to an extramarital affair. It destroyed his marriage, which ended in divorce, and likely his political future, which had at one time seemed to include presidential aspirations.
Sanford 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."
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, on Facebook denounced Folks' claim, and said she had warned Haley that she and her family would be targeted. Palin, who has publicly supported Haley, said she spoke with the candidate and told her to hang in there.
"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.