S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday she endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for president because he is best suited to restore GOP principles of limited government and cutting debt to Washington.
"I want a president who understands they have to go back to Washington, D.C., and bring a conscience back to our Republicans," Haley, a Lexington Republican, told a crowd of hundreds gathered outside a Chapin warehouse.
Haley said she made the decision as a mother who wants a safer, more prosperous nation for her children and as the wife of a combat veteran who wants more support for the military.
Haley did not say why she didn't choose others candidates running in Saturday's GOP primary.
"We have good people running for president, and I thank them today for their sacrifice and their willingness to serve," she said. "But my job was to find the person I thought who could do it the best.
"I wanted someone with fight. I wanted somebody with passion. I wanted somebody who has the conviction to do the right thing," she said. "But I wanted somebody humble enough (who) remembers that you work for all the people."
Haley, the state’s most popular GOP politician in polls and a rising national GOP star, was South Carolina’s most coveted Republican endorsement in the 2016 presidential race.
"She embodies for me everything that I want the Republican Party and conservative movement to be about," Rubio told the Chapin crowd.
The governor’s endorsement comes at a critical time for Rubio.
The Florida senator needs to do well in South Carolina after finishing fifth in New Hampshire following a rattled debate performance. Rubio trails GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with just two days to go before Saturday’s Friday.
Haley joins U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Spartanburg Republican who heads a panel investigating the Benghazi attack, in endorsing Rubio.
Haley backed the GOP establishment candidate considered to have the best chance of challenging Trump and Cruz.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has shared advice on education issues with Haley and helped her raise money for her 2014 re-election bid, also was a contender to win Haley’s endorsement. Bush’s father and brother, both former presidents who won the S.C. primary, reached out to Haley in recent weeks.
But Bush has lagged in recent S.C. polls, falling to fifth in the six-candidate GOP field. Rubio is in third, according to most polls.
Haley’s decision was a reversal. Tuesday, Haley said she had not made up her mind about who to endorse.
She endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. While the former Massachusetts governor won the GOP nomination, he lost the S.C. primary to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, breaking the state’s three-decade streak of voting for the GOP candidate who landed on the November ballot.
Haley and Rubio share similar backgrounds. Both are 44-year-old children of immigrants who were elected to office in the Tea Party fervor of 2010.
Rubio initially met Haley when they first were running for their current offices. The senator spoke at the S.C. GOP’s annual dinner in 2012 and started building relationships in the early-primary state. They have communicated while Rubio has been on the campaign trail.
During stops in South Carolina this week, the senator has said Haley would make a good vice president. Haley became a favorite to make vice presidential short lists after her handling of last year’s Charleston slayings and her successful call to remove the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House grounds. She also gave the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last month.
Haley’s endorsement, while arriving later than expected, was not a surprise.
She had said she would not back Trump. She urged voters not to listen to the “angriest voices” in her State of the Union response and has criticized Trump for his combative campaigning.
Trump has said Haley is not doing enough to protect South Carolina from Syrian refugees and the possibility of Guantanamo prisoners being transferred to the Navy brig outside Charleston. Haley has protested both issues to federal officials.
Haley has not criticized Cruz, but she has not kept in regular contact with the Texas senator.