COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A South Carolina lobbyist resigned from a rival political campaign on Wednesday and then became the second man to claim he had a tryst with a Republican lawmaker trying to become the state's first female governor.
Lobbyist Larry Marchant admitted he had no proof to back up his allegation of a one-night stand with state Rep. Nikki Haley in 2008 and her campaign vehemently denied the allegation. The claim became the latest political drama for a state that was roiled when Gov. Mark Sanford made a tearful confession last summer to sneaking out of the country to rendezvous with an Argentine woman.
Earlier in the day, Marchant resigned from the campaign of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is competing with Haley for the GOP nomination in the June 8 primary.
"It never happened. Absolutely not," Haley said emphatically about Marchant's claim during a debate with Bauer and the two other Republican candidates in Charleston. "This is just disgusting politics. Two or three months ago I was Nikki who? and nobody was saying anything and a couple weeks ago we started going double digits up in the polls and now we have had everything thrown at us."
Haley's campaign manager had the same message.
"As Nikki Haley rises in the polls, the good old boys in Columbia see their taxpayer-funded fraternity party coming crumbling down, and they will say or do anything to hold onto their power," Tim Pearson said earlier. "This is South Carolina politics at its worst."
Marchant concedes he can't prove his allegation. "We knew up front that I didn't have any evidence because you can't have any evidence on a one night affair -- you don't have that."
Marchant's claim is the second leveled at Haley in as many weeks. Political blogger Will Folks said he and Haley had an "inappropriate physical relationship" in 2007. Despite dribbling out days of innuendo on his website, Folks has yet to prove his claims. He was not married at the time of the alleged relationship.
Haley, a 38-year-old married mother of two who vows she has been faithful over 13 years of marriage, is a tea party favorite in the four-way race for the GOP nomination to succeed the term-limited Sanford. She has been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her rivals privately say their internal polls show her with a lead.
Even in a state renowned for its dirty politics, Haley has faced more than her share this primary season. On Wednesday, she was preparing to strike back with a television ad set to air the following day. In it, Haley references the rougher side of campaigning.
"I've seen the dark side of our state's politics, and I know the bright side of our state's people," Haley says in the ad as images of her, husband Michael and their two children appear. "I have a vision of what South Carolina can be."
Before the debate, Haley's husband said "the allegation is absolutely false." The three Democrats running for governor were also debating Wednesday night, but in Spartanburg.
Marchant is a well-known lobbyist who has led efforts to pass school choice legislation in South Carolina. He told The Associated Press that he and Haley had a one-time sexual encounter in her room in a Salt Lake City hotel where they attended a school choice conference in June 2008.
He said he decided to go public after old rumors about a liaison were rekindled by Folks' claims.
"I did not have any intention of going public," Marchant said. "I kept getting calls from different people. I just felt like I owed Andre to disclose it to him. I did not do it until two days after I disclosed it to my wife."
Marchant said part of the reason he came forward was Haley's categorical denial last week of being unfaithful to her husband.
"It just gnawed at me to the point I had to confide in my wife and then we both made a joint decision that I was not going to push the issue but that if I was confronted, I was not going to lie about it," Marchant said.
"It was not an affair. It was just one time," Marchant said. "It was one of those things that happened. ... We just had a one-night indiscretion."
Marchant said Bauer asked for his resignation after a newspaper reporter began asking questions about the alleged tryst this week. Bauer declined to comment about it, but his campaign did take the unusual step of announcing the resignation for "inappropriate conduct not in keeping with the goals of this campaign."
Pearson told The Associated Press that Marchant "has a vested and clear personal and financial interest in bringing Nikki Haley down."
During the debate, Haley suggested Bauer's campaign had tried to shop the story to reporters on Tuesday.
"You were all fishing the story last night and you didn't fire him yesterday. It was only when no one would take him seriously because he was a paid consultant that you fired him today," Haley told Bauer.
Following the debate, Bauer denied trying to shop the story.
"Somebody I paid to raise money for me came to me with something they had done that I didn't think was appropriate to be associated with my campaign so I asked him to resign," Bauer said.
"I'm not shopping it. I'm not commenting on it."
Bauer had paid Marchant's Black Label Strategies $21,361 since he formally opened his campaign account for governor in October. He also paid Black Label $29,099 in 2009, according to campaign finance reports.
Marchant said most of that money went to two salaries in his political consultant business, not to him.
"I'm not getting paid by anybody to do this. That is crazy," Marchant said.
Bauer has been running ads featuring former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who says the lieutenant governor "was tea party before there was a tea party."
Marchant, who was married at the time of the alleged tryst, said state Rep. Eric Bedingfield also attended the 2008 conference. Bedingfield confirmed he was there with Haley and Marchant but always in a group setting.
"I saw nothing inappropriate," said Bedingfield, R-Mauldin, who is not backing any candidate in the governor's race.