Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she had found a kindred spirit in Republican gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley, urging state voters to get behind the underdog candidate from Lexington.
Palin threw her support to Haley in front of about 1,000 people gathered at the State House steps Friday evening.
Palin, a political star since being selected as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, said Haley shared many of her concerns to clean up "good ol' boy" government.
"The establishment said I couldn't do it, and I didn't get a lot of help from the establishment," Palin said, before addressing Haley: "I know your story. I know what you're going through."
Palin's 10-minute speech wrapped up an important day for Haley, who was joined in the morning by former S.C. first lady Jenny Sanford. Haley is one of four Republicans seeking to succeed Sanford's ex-husband, Mark, who is term-limited. The other candidates are U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of Greenville and Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia.
Palin is a polarizing political figure, and her endorsement appearance drew plenty of gawkers and a small group opposed to oil drilling off the U.S. coast. Others held signs that said, "Sarah Palin was born in Kenya" - a reference to those who think President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen - and "We (heart) you Tina Fey." Fey memorably mocked Palin on "Saturday Night Live" during the presidential campaign.
Haley and Palin draw support from the same types of voters, said College of Charleston political scientist Jeri Cabot, so the question is whether Palin's endorsement expands Haley's support. Haley has trailed the other GOP candidates in fundraising. Public polls, done within the last two months, have shown her in fourth place.
"She is notorious and notable and definitely attracts a crowd," Cabot said of Palin. "So that can never really be a bad thing at this stage in a campaign."
Palin's endorsement may prod undecided voters to consider Haley, Cabot said, helping her raise more money before the June 8 primary.
Bradley Rodermond and Joel Vaught drove from Conway to hear Palin. Both were undecided voters. Vaught, 21, said he was not paying a lot of attention to the governor's race but would now consider Haley.
"I would say hers is the most important endorsement out there, for me," said Rodermond, 19.
Lexington resident Rowena Booker is backing Haley. Booker, 47, hoped Palin's endorsement would bring in more campaign contributions.
"I endorse one of our locals for governor," Booker said. "She's a new fresh face in the political arena."
The Columbia speech wrapped up a busy day for Palin, as well, who delivered speeches in Washington, D.C., and at a National Rifle Association meeting in Charlotte.
Palin spent much of her Columbia speech decrying federal spending.
"I didn't feel stimulated," she said of the president's $787 billion federal stimulus plan. She called Obama's health care reform bill a "European-style health-care scheme."
But in praising Haley for having "the backbone to vote against taking the Obama stimulus money," Palin also focused attention on Haley's changing votes on the issue last year.
Haley twice voted to include $350 million in federal stimulus in the S.C. budget, before opposing final passage of the budget.
Haley said she switched her position after learning more about the stimulus and speaking with Gov. Sanford and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville.
This was Palin's first trip to South Carolina, a state that has proven a must-win for any Republican who wants to win the party's presidential nomination.
She is the fourth prospective candidate for the party's 2012 nomination to visit the state.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran for president in 2008, visited The Citadel last month, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a 2008 candidate, has spent time in the state recently signing his new book.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty visited the state a week ago.
But perhaps none of the prospective candidates has Palin's star power.
Rodermond, admiring Palin's moral values and her ability to withstand criticism, said it was worth the two-hour drive on one of the warmest days this spring to catch a glimpse of Palin.
"I really respect her and her views."
Other high-profile endorsements in the GOP race for S.C. governor include:
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who won the 2008 S.C. Republican presidential primary, is backing S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished second in the 2008 primary, is backing Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who finished third in the 2008 primary, is backing U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who finished fourth, is backing state Rep. Nikki Haley.
The Palin effectThree of her endorsements:
Doug Hoffman, U.S. House candidate, New York. Hoffman lost his race to a Democrat.
Rand Paul, U.S. Senate candidate, Kentucky. Seeking the GOP nomination in Tuesday's primary
Former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, U.S. Senate candidate, California. Seeking the GOP nomination June 8