COLUMBIA, S.C.--South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is backing Mitt Romney's bid for the Republican presidential nomination—ending the suspense over one of the most sought-after endorsements in the party.
Announcing her decision on Fox News, Haley, a tea party conservative who was elected as the state's first female governor a year ago, pointed to Romney's private-sector background and his experience as a Republican governor in a Democratic state as the reasons behind her support.
"What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos in Washington," Haley told Fox News.
Acknowledging that Romney is "not the perfect candidate," Haley said she believed the former Massachusetts governor could go toe-to-toe with President Obama in the general election.
"Gov. Romney is the one candidate that President Obama consistently tries to hit and get out of the way," Haley told Fox News. "That lets me know he's scared of him. It also lets me know Gov. Romney's got a good fight in him and that's the one President Obama doesn't want to have to go against."
The endorsement isn't surprising. Romney backed Haley in what was one of the nation's nastiest Republican gubernatorial primaries in 2010—breaking with some of his own supporters. And he campaigned heavily for her bid in the state in the general election.
Over the last several months, Haley was wooed by virtually all of the Republican contenders. Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich even went so far as to stay the night as Haley's invited guest at the governor's mansion in Columbia. But Haley hinted early on that she wouldn't back Gingrich, telling reporters in March that she believed his political moment had passed.
"He's been there and done that," she said.
Haley's endorsement is sure to offer a boost to Romney's almost non-existent campaign in the Palmetto State and give him credibility nationally among tea party and conservative voters--but there's some debate among South Carolina Republicans over how helpful her backing will really be in the state.
A Winthrop University Poll released earlier this week found Haley's poll numbers in the state have dramatically plummeted since she was elected. According to the poll, she currently has a 35 percent approval rating among all South Carolina voters—lower than President Obama's job rating in the state, which sits at 44 percent.
Her numbers were perhaps most striking among Republicans, who were split over Haley's job performance. Fifty-two percent said they approve of the job Haley is doing, 24 percent said they were "not sure" and 22 percent said they disapprove. But Haley allies have strongly disputed the poll's findings, suggesting Winthrop's sampling was off.
"There is no way that Nikki Haley is less popular than Barack Obama in South Carolina," state GOP chairman Chad Connolly told Yahoo News. "It's beyond comprehension. It just can't be true."
But several top Republicans in the state confirmed that Haley's popularity within the party isn't what it used to be and questioned how much help she could be to Romney, who has invested little time or money in the state even though the race is considered wide open ahead of next month's primary.
"She has a tense relationship with establishment Republicans, and she's not doing well with the grassroots," one top Republican in the state, who declined to be named talking about Haley, told Yahoo News. "I tend to think that getting the endorsement of a governor in a key early state is helpful, but in this case, I don't know if it helps or hurts Romney."
The former Massachusetts governor is set to kick off a two-day visit to South Carolina on Friday afternoon, where Haley will campaign alongside him. Romney has spent seven days in the state since formally kicking off his second Republican nomination bid in May and has just three paid staffers in the state—a dramatically smaller footprint than he had during his last presidential run four years ago.
Once viewed as the frontrunner in South Carolina, Romney has been overtaken by Gingrich, who now leads the ex-governor 38 percent to 22 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll of likely GOP voters in the state.
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