COLUMBIA — Nikki Haley had been forewarned that the Lexington County Republican power brokers she was about to meet were backing her primary opponent, South Carolina’s longest-serving GOP state representative.

But Haley — brilliant white smile, jet black hair, and eager, outstretched hand — was unfazed.

She emerged from the meeting, as it later was recounted, with a contribution from each of the party grandees.

As those Republican leaders found out — and as the GOP voters of Iowa and New Hampshire now know — Haley, who later was S.C. governor and U.N. ambassador, is a brilliant retail politician.

Campaign buttons for Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley sit on a table during a campaign event at the Lawren…

She is also a grifter — albeit minor league compared to Donald Trump and his family, and, Republicans argue, the family of President Biden — with a ferocious temper who can be vindictive. Her relationship with the truth is occasionally suspect as well.

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Politically, Haley is a shape-shifter.

A grifter? Consider:

  • After her election to the S.C. House, Haley, whose finances were tenuous, landed a $110,000-a-year job with the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, an arm of a metro Columbia hospital. (Haley’s 2008 job application said she made $125,000 a year. In reality, she was making a fifth of that amount.) At the foundation, Haley, an S.C. House appropriator, raised funds from lobbyists and companies, including payday lenders, with business before the state. She also engaged, at least once, in vote counting on legislation of huge importance to Lexington Medical, a 2008 bill to allow it to expand its lucrative heart procedures.
  • While a state representative, Haley also landed a then-unknown consulting contract — paying $48,000 — with the now-defunct Wilbur Smith Associates engineering firm. When asked why Haley had been hired, a company official said: “Her contacts,” adding her “passive position” landed no new business for the firm.
  • After exiting the Trump administration, Haley joined Boeing’s board of directors. Boeing, which makes airplanes in North Charleston, received $120 million in tax incentives from the state while Haley was governor. For her short stint on the Boeing board, Haley was paid $340,072.
  • Post-U.N., Haley also has been a prolific speechmaker, earning millions for addressing groups — her favorites being pro-Israel or pro-India, and right-wing.

Ferocious temper? Vindictive?

Steve Brook

As a presidential candidate, Haley has won plaudits for her nuanced position on abortion, saying she will lead the country to consensus.

  • As S.C. governor, however, Haley was combative, not a consensus builder. For example, she issued report cards for members of the GOP-controlled House and the majority Republican state Senate in 2011. Their grades were based on whether the legislators voted for Haley’s agenda. If not, she openly backed her fellow Republicans’ primary opponents in several races. (Small wonder that Trump has more endorsements than Haley among the state’s Republican legislators.)
  • Similarly, as the U.N. ambassador, Haley vowed to “take names” of countries that opposed U.S. positions.
  • While governor, Haley also used a press conference to explode at a reporter for The (Columbia) State newspaper after a 2012 story about the state government’s youngest employee, Haley’s then-14-year-old daughter. Haley’s fury was so wincingly over the top that the wife of another Republican officeholder called the reporter’s editor. She said neither she nor her husband wanted to be associated with Haley’s tirade.

Truthy? A shape-shifter?

  • For years, Haley has referred to herself as an accountant, touting that training as qualifying her to cut government budgets. The problem? Haley is not an accountant. She has an accounting degree. (Splitting hairs? Ask a law school graduate who fails the bar exam.)
  • Haley also says that, as governor, she took the Confederate flag off the S.C. State House grounds. But, running for re-election in 2014, she told a televised debate the flag was not an issue. Immediately after the 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre, she again said the flag was not an issue. Only days later, Haley reversed field, saying the flag should come down, encouraging the legislature — which had the power to remove the flag, not her — to take it down.

Haley was elected South Carolina governor in 2010, largely because of the efforts of former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the state’s then-lame-duck governor, Mark “Appalachian Trail” Sanford.

A Sanford-affiliated political committee injected $400,000 into Haley’s faltering GOP primary bid. Then, Palin endorsed her fellow female trailblazer days before the primary.

Get for $1 for 26 weeks

Despite her tea party roots, Haley’s politics — when consistent — pass for pre-tea party. She is for lower taxes, smaller government and a muscular U.S. foreign policy.

But Haley’s politics can swing like an ambitious weather vane.

Consider her tortured relationship with Trump. Before the 2016 S.C. GOP primary, Haley endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio. When Rubio faltered, Haley endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz.

Then, stunningly, she joined the Trump administration.

After the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Haley blistered Trump, saying the insurrection had ruined his legacy. Later, she said she would not run against him. Then, she entered the race. Then, in the primary’s first debate, Haley said she would support Trump if he was the Republican nominee. Now, she says Trump was the right president in 2016, but not now.

According to polls, most Republican voters don’t agree. Despite the Haley boomlet, those voters favor Trump by a wide margin, even in South Carolina.

But Haley will be back in 2028 — her real goal, I suspect — assuming the then-occupant of the White House — whether Trump or Biden — is willing to leave.

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