Nikki Haley became the first Indian-American woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state, riding a wave of support from the ultraconservative tea party movement to become governor of South Carolina, a southern state with a long history of racial tension.
Born Nimrata Randhawa but known under the Americanized first name Nikki, Haley's election Tuesday night makes her only the second Indian-American governor in the U.S. after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Both are Republicans.
A 38-year-old married mother of two and a Christian who was raised by Sikh parents, Haley campaigned stridently as a political outsider, picking up steam after she earned the backing of 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin _ a tea party favorite.
She also managed to shoulder unproven accusations of marital infidelity, questions about her finances and experience.
The election transforms Haley into a significant figure on the American political scene. South Carolina is the first southern state in the presidential primary circuit, and potential Republican candidates for the 2012 White House already are beating paths across the landscape as they donated to her campaign.
However, she inherits a contentious Legislature, bristling after eight years vetoes and public castigation from scandal-tainted Gov. Mark Sanford, a former ally of Haley's, who must step down in January because of term limits.
Sanford's administration threw the state legislature into turmoil after he acknowledged an affair with an Argentine woman. Sanford, who has since divorced, was formally reprimanded by lawmakers but resisted pressure to resign.
Haley was joined on the campaign trail by Sanford's ex-wife Jenny, who became hugely popular here after her husband disappeared from the state in 2009, traveling to Argentina before returning to confess his affair.
Haley, now a Methodist, grew up in rural Bamberg County and helped run her parents' clothing business, working as a bookkeeper starting in her teens. Haley's father, who wears the traditional Sikh turban, was a biology professor at a historically black college and her mother taught middle school social studies.
Haley's success has drawn comparisons to Palin, her party's most public female personality.
"She has what people had hoped Sarah Palin had had," said Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston political scientist. "I think people felt like Sarah Palin was lacking the substance but Nikki Haley actually has that substance."
Conservatives rallied around Haley, who has called for term limits, smarter spending, and more transparency in how taxpayer money is handled.
Haley is no stranger to difficult races. She was elected to the state legislature in 2004 in a bid prompted by frustration with taxes and regulation that developed while keeping the books for her family's retail clothing business.
"My parents always said, 'Don't complain about it, do something about it,'" Haley said. A lawmaker who was supposed to retire changed his mind and she ended up in a tough runoff, winning even though an opponent sent out fliers that stressed her foreign-sounding maiden name.
More recently, state Sen. Jake Knotts was reprimanded by Republican leaders after he called Haley a "raghead."
But rather than trying to downplay her background, Haley is touting it.
At age 5, Haley recalls being entered with her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg Pageant, which had a separate contest for the county's predominantly black populace. The girls were disqualified because organizers didn't know which pageant they should be in.
"I grew up knowing that we were different," she said. "But it's also the reason why I think that I focused so much on trying to find the similarities with people as opposed to the differences."
Knotts' ethnic slur wasn't the only ugly turn in Haley's campaign for the Republican nomination. Two men _ one a political blogger, the other a lobbyist from a rival political campaign _ claim to have had inappropriate physical relationships with her. Neither has offered proof. Haley denies their claims.