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Nikki Haley vehemently denies affair

S.C. Republicans are waiting to see whether state Rep. Nikki Haley's soaring campaign for governor will be brought back to earth by a political blogger's claim Monday that he had an "inappropriate physical relationship" with the Lexington Republican.

Haley "categorically and totally" denied the allegation by Will Folks, a controversial former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford. Folks now blogs and has done paid public relations work for politicians -- including Haley.

Folks provided no evidence to back up his claims, nor would he clarify what took place. But he told The Associated Press the relationship happened in 2007, while he was working for Haley writing speeches and news releases.

Folks posted his story Monday morning, and it quickly started circulated around the Internet. By 10 a.m., dozens of state and national media outlets were reporting the claim.

"Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki," Folks wrote on his site, FITSnews.com.

In a statement, Haley, 38, denied any improper relationship and called Folks' claim a "disgraceful smear."

"I have been 100 percent faithful to my husband throughout our 13 years of marriage," Haley said in a statement, issued by her campaign. "This claim against me is categorically and totally false.

"It is sad, but not surprising, that this disgraceful smear has taken form less than a week removed from the release of a poll showing our campaign with a significant lead. It is quite simply South Carolina politics at its worst."

Haley has become a favorite in the tight four-way race for the Republican nomination for governor after picking up the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin earlier this month. A recent poll showed Haley with a double-digit percentage point lead over her rivals -- Attorney General Henry McMaster, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

The June 8 primary is just over two weeks away.

In a radio interview Monday, Haley said both Palin and Jenny Sanford had called her since Folks' allegations to confirm their support.

"Don't let some blogger make any accusation against your Nikki if the guy doesn't even have the guts or the integrity to speak further on such a significant claim," Palin said in a statement posted on Facebook.

State GOP chairwoman Karen Floyd said the election should be decided on ideas and not "unsubstantiated personal attacks."

Folks is a controversial figure in S.C. politics. He first came to notice after Mark Sanford tapped the former rock band bass player as his spokesman. In 2005, however, Folks pleaded guilty to criminal domestic violence. Since then, he has built FITSnews.com into an influential blog among South Carolina politicos, particularly libertarian-Republicans, including the Sanford-Haley wing of the GOP.

The site frequently taps anonymous sources to publish otherwise unverifiable rumors, sometimes accurately and sometimes not. Much of the rest of the site covers sports or the latest celebrity photos cribbed from entertainment blogs. Folks shrugs off accusations that he is paid to publish certain stories on his blog.

It was unclear Monday what motivated Folks to make public his alleged relationship with Haley. On his blog, Folks said that state political operatives were after Haley and him and that a story documenting the affair was pending. Folks, who has been complimentary of Haley on his blog, said he would give no interviews.

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said it was unclear whether the story would hurt Haley. The Palin endorsement forced voters to take notice of Haley, he said. But how strong is their favor?

The "question hinges on how many people are faithful troops," Huffmon said of Haley's rising popularity. "Supporters and faithful are two different camps of people."

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