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South Carolina and the social ramble

The state that leads the nation in political sex scandals

The weather is hot and tempers are short - John McCain: "Complete the dang fence!" Barack Obama: "Plug the damn hole!" - so perhaps today we should forgo the weighty issues in favor of something that will go down nice and easy, like a gin and tonic.

And where better to have fun in the sun than South Carolina? Seriously, if the cable programmers at Showtime are in the hunt for yet another racy series, they'd be well advised to simply call it "South Carolina." Few other states can boast of a political culture that yields such rich true-life material – as evidenced by the new not-so-Harlequin tale of the lady and the blogger.

We'll get to that one in a moment. But first, let's stipulate that no fictional script can compete with this state's track record for slime; after all, this is the place where conservative activists spread the false rumor, back in the 2000 GOP presidential primary, that candidate John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black baby. (They presumably were unaware that South Carolina icon/segregationist Strom Thurmond actually had fathered an illegitimate black baby.)

Let's also stipulate that nothing in the fiction realm can top the '09 saga of Mark Sanford, the conservative "love guv" who flew off to Argentina at state expense to meet his mistress while aides claimed he was soulfully trekking on the Appalachian Trail...although, on second thought, we do have these other promising plot arcs, all of very recent vintage:

The Republican state comptroller general is said to have engaged in extramarital sex with a Republican candidate who's vying to become the state superintendent of education. A deputy assistant state attorney general was recently fired after he was caught in his car (in a cemetery, no less) with a stripper, sex toys, and a Viagra pill. The lieutenant governor, who's vying in a June primary to become the '10 GOP gubernatorial nominee, has long been trying to fend off rumors that he is gay; so perhaps he was merely trying to demonstrate manly toughness, back in January, when he said that giving publicly-subsidized meals to poor people was akin to feeding stray animals ("My grandmother...told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed").

But nothing skews the slimemeter like the allegations this week about the lady and the blogger. South Carolina has fittingly broken new ground. Is there something in the water down there? Never before (at least to my knowledge) has a male conservative blogger come forward to volunteer that he had a sexual affair with a married female "family values" candidate - in this case, Nikki Haley, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful who is being touted as "pro-family" by Sarah Palin.

In our brave new digital world, anyone can go online and post anything. Two days ago, a political consultant named Will Folks declared on his own blog, a popular South Carolina political tip sheet, that he had slept with Haley when he worked for her back in 2007. He offered no proof. Haley, a state legislator, denounced the blog post as "categorically and totally false," contended that she has been "100 percent faithful" to her husband during their 13 wedded years, and insisted that she was being smeared only because she had opened up a double-digit lead in the polls on the eve of the June GOP gubernatorial primary.

What's weird is that Will Folks (the name is fit for a Grisham novel) considers himself a Haley supporter. He says that one of Haley's gubernatorial rivals (not the gay-rumored lieutenant governor) has been shopping the Folks-Haley sex story around, so Folks decided to preempt the rival by coming clean on his blog. ("I decided I would get ahead of a way that was respectful to Nikki"). Why he assumed that his preemptive confession would help Haley is a mystery. This is a guy who's supposed to know a few things about public relations; he used to be Gov. Mark Sanford's press spokesman. And the love guv also happens to be Haley's mentor. And the love guv's ex-wife, Jenny, has endorsed Haley.

I told you, it's impossible to make this stuff up.

Anyway, Folks is not happy with Haley's denial. He reportedly said yesterday: "Nikki says it's categorically false. The it's categorically true. There will be a very aggressive effort mounted to obtain all of the data that will corroborate what I've said." Translation: he supposedly has emails and text messages that prove the liaison, and intends to make them public.

What's fascinating here is that Haley is the rare married female politician to be accused of an extramarital affair. It's the guys who generally get in trouble for that; witness, most recently, Indiana congressman Mark Souder and Nevada senator John Ensign. It will be interesting to see whether Haley's gubernatorial candidacy takes a hit - one South Carolina political analyst said Monday that an accusation of infidelity is "the only way to really attack a female candidate" - or whether, in the absence of proof, she garners a major sympathy vote, thus greasing her win in the GOP primary.

To help ensure the latter, Haley aired a new TV ad yesterday, referencing both "the grace of God" and Sarah Palin. She also insisted in a statement that the sex charge "is quite simply South Carolina politics at its worst."

We'll see about that. The century is still young. Maybe our Palmetto friends would be wise to heed the advice of the late, great pitcher Satchel Paige: "Go very light on the vices...The social ramble ain't restful."