South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement of Mitt Romney gives the ex-Bay State governor a crucial tea party imprimatur in a state that holds a critical Jan. 21 presidential primary. But Haley’s endorsement might be even more helpful by solidifying the perception that Romney's campaign is on the rebound after a downturn.
Consider where Romney stood at the beginning of the week. Republicans and other critics were hammering him for offering Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet, and national polls showed Gingrich leading the GOP race by double-digits. The news was just as pessimistic in the Palmetto State: Romney trailed the ex-speaker of the House by 20 points there, according to an NBC News-Marist Poll. And on Tuesday, state party Chairman Chad Connelly questioned his commitment to the state.
The outlook for Romney is improving. National polls have shown Gingrich’s standing slipping (from 37 percent to 29 percent in roughly a week, according to Gallup), raising questions of whether Gingrich is following in the footsteps of onetime front-runners Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann. Romney also turned in a strong debate performance Thursday night.
Haley’s support puts an exclamation mark on Romney’s revived prospects. He still is in a dogfight against Gingrich -- nowhere moreso than in South Carolina, where his organization is still lacking. But Haley is a favorite of many conservative activists and could bolster his chances in the state that has voted for the eventual GOP nominee in every contested primary since 1980.
“Gov. Romney’s lack of presence in the state of South Carolina might be mitigated by this endorsement,’’ said Karen Floyd, a former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “Gov. Haley was elected by the tea party, and she still carries the tailwinds from that election.’’
Haley's backing suggests that, in a primary dominated by debates and sudden surges of momentum, years of organizing for a presidential campaign can reap huge benefits. Romney endorsed Haley early in her gubernatorial campaign, when she was still seen as an outsider and longshot in her quest to win the party’s GOP nomination. That foresight is now paying off for Romney.
South Carolina's unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, nearly 2 percentage points above the national average. Haley will be a key voice delivering Romney's message that his business background makes him the best candidate to create jobs and revive the economy.
But the former Massachusetts governor still faces challenges. The state’s evangelical tilt is unfavorable to Romney, a Mormon with a history of shifting positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And Haley’s endorsement likely carries less weight now than in 2010, when she shot to national prominence. Her poll numbers are sagging, even among conservatives. A Winthrop University Poll released earlier this month put her approval rating at just under 35 percent.
Haley’s endorsement is a boost, said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist based in the state, but it might mean more to pundits in Washington than to voters in South Carolina.
“It’s no question it’s a win for him,” he said. “The real question is, is it as big a win in-state as it is out-of-state?”
Beth Reinhard contributed