- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Nikki Haley, who became South Carolina’s first female governor in 2011, is widely favored to win re-election after sidestepping several first-term blunders and focusing on job gains that have burnished her image nationally as a Republican star.

Polls suggest the 42-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants will capture a second term, four years after voters also chose her to become the state’s first minority governor. A convincing victory in November is likely needed to help boost any political aspirations she has beyond the governor’s office.

Already she has become a familiar figure on the national stage, speaking at the 2012 Republican National Convention and campaigning for others including past GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. She’s also has a 2012 memoir and book tour behind her.

“I asked people four years ago to take a chance on me and they did,” she said. “I’ve spent every day trying to prove to them they made a good decision, and that’s what I plan on doing the next four.”

In 2010, Haley was a three-term state House member from Lexington who came from behind to win a four-way GOP primary. She then beat her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheehan, by 4.5 percentage points. Sheheen is her Democratic opponent again in an election seen as a rematch in the conservative Southern state that has generally favored Republicans by wide margins. An independent, Tom Ervin, and two third-party candidates are also running.

“In a state everybody sees as deeply red … she wants to make sure she wins by a larger margin this time to solidify herself,” political science professor and pollster Scott Huffmon at Winthrop University said.

The latest Winthrop Poll puts Haley 10 points ahead of Sheheen among likely voters. The poll, conducted Sept. 21-28, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll showed Haley leading with 44 percent, followed by Sheheen with 34 percent, Ervin with 4 percent, Libertarian Steve French at 2 percent, United Citizens candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves at 1 percent, 12 percent undecided and 3 percent refused to answer. The same poll indicates why: Voters rated jobs the state’s top issue, and most said South Carolina’s economy is in at least fairly good shape - and getting better - even while most think the national economy is doing badly.

Huffmon and other political observers believe Haley will easily win. “It would be extremely difficult for an upset absent a dramatic event,” Huffmon said.

Sheheen and Ervin have sought to remind voters of problems in Haley’s administration. That includes the 2012 cyber-theft of 6.4 million residents’ and businesses’ personal data from tax returns and hearings and reports this year into the failures of the Department of Social Services to protect abused and neglected children. Both the Department of Revenue and DSS are Cabinet agencies that answer to the governor.

Voters, however, seem willing to look past those issues while giving Haley credit for creating new jobs. She frequently touts the number of jobs announced by her administration, giving the latest tally at 57,000 in 45 of the state’s 46 counties, and a state unemployment rate that’s fallen from 10.5 percent when she took office to 6.4 percent last month.

Major announcements during her tenure include Boeing’s expansion in North Charleston. The aerospace giant announced in April 2013 plans to invest another $1 billion and create 2,000 new jobs - in addition to the 6,000 then employed - over eight years in North Charleston, after legislators passed a $120 million incentives package. The first of the company’s 787 Dreamliners built in South Carolina rolled off the assembly line in 2012. Sheheen points out Haley, then a legislator, did not attend a special legislative session in October 2009, when the Legislature passed Boeing’s initial incentives package that brought the company to South Carolina.

Michelin, Bridgestone, Continental, Trelleborg and Giti Tire also have announced new or expanded facilities in recent years, bolstering South Carolina’s reputation as the nation’s tire capital.

Sheheen and Ervin criticize her numbers as not real, since many employers won’t fill those jobs for years and some plans already have or will fall through. Exact numbers are unknown; Commerce officials don’t follow up on announcements. As for the jobless rate, Sheheen points to a shrinking labor participation rate in South Carolina, which reflects a national trend.

Meanwhile, Ervin has also accused Haley of looking beyond the state to the national stage and “running” for vice president.

Haley, however, insists her only goal “is to be the best governor I can be.”

So far, about half of the nearly $7 million she’s collected since taking office has come from out-of-state donors, according to a review of her filings through July.

“Campaigns are expensive, and you can’t rely solely on South Carolina citizens to fund a campaign. It’s not practical,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people support us around the country.”

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