COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - In South Carolina, the governor’s mansion is on the grounds of a former arsenal that was burned down by the Union army during the Civil War.
These days, that attack in the 1860s seems a metaphor for the besieged tenure of Republican Governor Nikki Haley.
Elected last year as a symbol of the conservative Tea Party’s rise in U.S. politics, the embattled Haley has had a rocky transition from government critic to government executive — and potential player in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Democrats and Republicans alike accuse her of being petty and distant. And some of the Tea Party conservatives who lifted Haley to a surprising victory last year now say she has lost focus on their priorities: reducing government and regulations.
Against that backdrop, the unapologetic Haley has endorsed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination for president.
With that she has further infuriated some in the state who say Romney, a favorite in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday, isn’t conservative enough.
The endorsement also has drawn threats that Haley — at 39, the nation’s youngest governor — could be challenged from within her own party when she is up for re-election in 2014.
Even so, Haley has positioned herself to influence the 2012 presidential campaign.
At the very least, endorsing the man widely viewed as the favorite to win the right to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November will give Haley a prominent platform within the Republican Party this election season.
Haley — who is Indian-American — is likely to be a featured campaign presence with two other young Republican officials who buck the stereotypical “good ol’ boy” image of party leaders as older white men: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, 40, an Indian-American, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, 40, who is Cuban-American.
In measuring her success as governor, Haley keeps one scoreboard: jobs. She says it presents the fullest measure of her work during the past year. It’s not clear she’s winning.
“I eat, sleep, and breathe jobs,” Haley told Reuters.
At present, the scoreboard reads 19,879, which is the number of jobs that Haley says have been added in South Carolina since she took office on January 12, 2011.
Compared with her predecessor, Mark Sanford, Haley’s job recruitment efforts are not extraordinary. In 2010, in a tougher economic climate, Sanford reported recruiting 20,453 jobs to the state.
Karen Martin, a self-employed editor of management training manuals who is an organizer for the Spartanburg Tea Party, said Haley spends too much time cheerleading for jobs and not enough time removing regulations.
But like some other Tea Partiers, Martin’s biggest gripe is Haley’s decision to support Romney.
Many in the Tea Party see Romney as a villain for instituting a healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts that required residents to have health insurance.
“It will not help Romney. It will absolutely hurt her,” Martin said of Haley’s endorsement. “She will have a Republican challenger who the Tea Party supports. There are Tea Party people who will work actively against her. The betrayal is so huge.”
Haley gives a well-practiced explanation of why Romney earned her support: Romney’s success in leading the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002; his distance from Washington’s dysfunction; his standing as the Republican who appears to most concern Obama’s re-election campaign.
Then Haley offers a conclusion that makes it seem as if a lack of enthusiasm for the alternatives to Romney was as much of a factor as anything.
“What I did was make a conscious decision that will allow me to sleep at night,” Haley said.
Columbia Tea Party Chairman Allen Olson, who supports the governor, said that “there is huge disagreement among Tea Partiers about how she is doing. People are getting divided. It’s getting ugly.”
That division has grown beyond Tea Party circles.
In December, Winthrop University released a poll charting Haley’s approval rating at 35 percent — a lower rating than Obama in the heavily Republican state.
Jon Lerner, a Washington-based consultant for Haley, disputes the poll, saying that it “contained far too many Democrats and far too few Republicans for an accurate South Carolina statewide survey.”
For Haley, the flap over her endorsement of Romney is the latest in a series of difficulties.
One year into her four-year term, the young executive is taking fire from all sides, as establishment Republicans, independent-minded Tea Partiers and a critical local press have questioned her leadership.
To Haley, the animosity comes from those in an old-guard South Carolina culture stuck in its ways. To her opponents, Haley is a political novice, whose blunders leave them constantly guessing at her motivations.
There was the barbecue at the governor’s mansion last summer, when a few Democrats, deemed disagreeable by Haley, were left of the guest list. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said only one, State Representative Boyd Brown, was turned away at the governor’s mansion gates. Under Sanford, the barbecue had been open to all.
There was the episode in April, when Haley removed the University of South Carolina’s most generous donor, a Democrat, from the state school’s board of trustees. The trustee was replaced by a contributor to Haley’s gubernatorial campaign.
There was the governor’s decision that antagonized opponents when she handed out report cards to each member of the legislature, grading them upon how closely they followed her agenda.
Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard — a close ally of Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party leader — said that Haley “has not been a substantial executive.” Haley spokesman Godfrey said that Woodard has been a critic of Haley since the gubernatorial campaign.
Privately, Republican strategists and officials complain that Haley is isolated, relying on her 29-year-old chief of staff, Tim Pearson, and Lerner, the Washington consultant, for counsel.
Haley has posted a plaque proclaiming, “Can’t Is Not An Option” on her office door. If anyone misses the message, they can read her book with the same title. It will be published in April.
She says her administration has had notable success in the legislature, such as getting lawmakers to agree to have more votes on the public record. Haley also points to a tort reform law, which caps punitive damage lawsuit rewards in South Carolina at $2 million, as another sign of progress.
Haley says she also has shown the legislature more respect than Sanford did. Sanford, whose tenure ended in scandal after he disappeared for several days in 2009 to visit his mistress in Argentina, once mocked lawmakers by carrying pigs into the House chamber.
“I’m very proud of where we are,” Haley said. “I know that one day they will see that.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank