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S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley will have a credible, well-funded Republican primary opponent in 2014 … that much you can count on. And if things continue as they are, we’ll be honest – it’s unlikely that she will survive the challenge.

Unlike 2006, when a small-town doctor ran as a protest candidate against Mark Sanford (drawing an impressive 35 percent of the vote), Haley’s opponent will be a known commodity. Not only that, they’ll be running against an incumbent with more baggage than your local Samsonite dealer.

“She is shaping up to be the proverbial piñata,” one GOP consultant tells FITS. “I can almost see her not running.”

Haley’s first year in office was an unmitigated disaster. Not only that, her second year kicked off with her preferred presidential candidate getting trounced in the “First in the South” GOP primary – followed by a unanimous rebuke by both chambers of the S.C. General Assembly over her “Savannah River Sellout” (a scandal that simply refuses to die).

But who will challenge Haley in the event she does seek reelection?

Below, in no particular order, are the five Republicans we believe are most likely to seek the 2014 S.C. Republican gubernatorial nomination …

Loftis

CURTIS LOFTIS || State Treasurer

The feud between Loftis and Haley began before either had taken their respective oaths of office last year – and has intensified dramatically in recent weeks. Specifically, Haley’s administration has been trying to cut Loftis off at the knees with regard to the S.C. Retirement System Investment Commission (SCRSIC) – where he has been championing aggressive benefit and investment reforms.

Who won that fight?

Loftis did. In a big way.

While Haley has been repeatedly pilloried for her surprising reversals on the transparency and accountability themes that served as the basis for her 2010 campaign, Loftis has lived up to his rhetoric – and adeptly promoted that distinction within Tea Party circles.

The Treasurer’s only real baggage? His endorsement of Romney … although Haley inadvertently assisted him on this front by working to minimize his involvement with the former Massachusetts governor’s South Carolina campaign.

Will he run? Loftis has publicly said that he would challenge Haley in the event no other credible candidate steps up, making him the first Republican to go on record expressing interest in running against her.

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Mick Mulvaney

MICK MULVANEY || U.S. Representative

In addition to being a consistent fiscal conservative champion, Mick Mulvaney is perhaps the most battle-tested Republican in the Palmetto State. He won a bitterly-contested State Senate race in 2008 against a very attractive female candidate – and he followed that victory up by handily defeating House Budget Chairman John Spratt in 2010.

Mulvaney hasn’t been publicly critical of Haley, but sources close to the first-term Congressman – who served with Haley in the S.C. House – say that he is profoundly disappointed in her failure to live up to the limited government principles that she campaigned on.

A philosophical policy wonk, Mulvaney devours data sets and lengthy, obtuse studies from think tanks the way that fat kids devour cake and ice cream. Unlike Mark Sanford, though, he’s an ideologue with street smarts.

“He’s a great legislator but he was born to be an executive,” one Mulvaney confidant tells us. “He cuts right through a lot of the bull that Sanford got bogged down by.”

Given his policy expertise and unapologetic bluntness, Mulvaney has secured a leading role among young conservatives in the U.S. House – not to mention a prime small business advocacy perch.

Will he run? Mulvaney’s intentions at this point are a total mystery. He’s given no indication that he’s interested in the governor’s office, although he’s certainly done nothing to dampen the speculation that he might run.

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Tom Davis

TOM DAVIS || State Senator

Davis is the leading fiscal conservative in the S.C. General Assembly, a champion of government restructuring and the author of spending cap legislation which includes a popular “taxpayer rebate fund” designed to give hundreds of millions of dollars back to South Carolina taxpayers each year.

A Tea Party hero, Davis has attacked the excesses of the welfare state and the crony capitalists who benefit from special interest handouts with equal verve. He also further solidified his Tea Party cred – and gained the backing of an engaged, activist army – with his endorsement of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in South Carolina’s presidential primary, a move that has also given him access to a formidable fundraising machine.

Can you say “Money Bomb?” Tom Davis can …

Simply put, you won’t find a more aggressive, articulate and consistent taxpayer advocate anywhere in state government – as numerous legislative scorecards have confirmed.

As for his relationship with Haley, Davis has been the most substantive critic of the governor’s “Savannah River Sellout,” although he did appear alongside Haley at a recent press conference in support of his amendment to abolish the wasteful, unaccountable S.C. Budget and Control Board (SCBCB).

Will he run? The guessing game surrounding Davis goes back and forth. Most political observers believe he is gearing up to challenge U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014, although a small group maintains that Davis is stoking the Graham speculation in an effort to conceal his real objective – a run at the governor’s office.

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Tim Scott

TIM SCOTT || U.S. Representative

We dinged Tim Scott recently for a wayward status quo vote in support of a Washington “compromise,” but for the most part he has been the steady taxpayer advocate we hoped he would be when we aggressively supported his candidacy in early 2010. He’s certainly light years ahead of former U.S. Rep. Henry Brown (RINO-Hanahan), the big-spending “Republican” who he replaced as South Carolina’s first district representative.

In fact we were especially proud of Scott when he refused to cave to intense pressure from the GOP leadership to support last year’s debt dereliction deal.

Scott also had perhaps the smartest approach of any Palmetto politician to the 2012 “First in the South” presidential primary – which was to endorse no one, but host a series of well-attended town halls featuring each of the prospective GOP candidates. That enabled him to simultaneously enhance his visibility while making connections with national and statewide operatives essential to creating successful network for a gubernatorial bid.

After spending a dozen years on Charleston County Council, Scott has jumped to the State House and the U.S. House in successive election cycles. A statewide bid seems to be what’s next for him, and not to put too fine a point on it but his status as the first modern-day black Republican to win a major political race in the Palmetto State gives him an advantage over the other names on this list in a hypothetical match-up against Haley.

Will he run? Behind the scenes, Scott is making absolutely no bones about his interest in the governor’s mansion – although the caveat for public consumption is that it would have to be in the event Haley did not seek reelection.

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Alan Wilson

ALAN WILSON || S.C. Attorney General

The son of a veteran Washington RINO, Alan Wilson was not our first choice to become S.C. Attorney General. In fact we lit him up pretty good during his successful 2010 bid to become the state’s top prosecutor.

Since taking office, though, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by Wilson’s performance. The guy we thought would be the ultimate favor-trader in the Attorney General’s office has actually done a pretty good job taking the politics out of that office. Also, when he has been called upon to advance South Carolina’s legal interests against the overreaching of the Obama administration, he has done so quite substantively.

Obviously there have been a few missteps along the way, but for the most part Wilson has proved us wrong. His rulings – not all of which we have agreed with – have shown no definitive pattern of favoritism, which is  more than we could say for the previous Attorney General.

Clearly, though, Wilson’s “make or break” moment will be the outcome of his office’s ongoing investigation into S.C. Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, whose campaign finance violations have morphed into a major ethics scandal. If Wilson is able to get a grand jury to indict Ard – and if the lieutenant governor is ultimately convicted – then he can pretty much punch his ticket to whatever statewide office he chooses.

If he fails in that effort, there will always be a presumption that some sort of political deal was cut – which would impugn the Boy Scout (Wilson is actually former Eagle Scout) image he has worked so hard to cultivate.

Will he run? With a military background, statewide name identification, a gorgeous (former TV anchor) wife and a pair of adorable kids, Wilson is a made-to-order statewide candidate – assuming the Ard case breaks his way, of course. Of all the elected officials included on this list, though, he’s been by far the quietest regarding his future political ambitions.

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THE POLL

So … which of these candidates would you like to see take on Haley? Or do you think the governor deserves a second term? Vote in our poll and post your thoughts in our comments section below …

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