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Sex versus money: Which has the political juice this year?

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What's more powerful politically: rumors of extramarital sex — or $72 million? Down in South Carolina, the Republican gubernatorial primary is being dominated by claims that the leading candidate, state legislator Nikki Haley, has had at least two extramarital hookups with men who happen to be political operatives supporting her competitors. Three thousand miles away in financially strapped California, big money is on the minds of voters. In Big Sur, the GOP gubernatorial primary fight will be decided by whether former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman's $72 million contribution to her own campaign, the largest in American history for such a state contest, can defeat an opponent who was once trailing in the polls by 50 percent.

Yes, $72 million! True, her opponent is the mega-wealthy state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who's given his campaign $24 million. But given Whitman's lead in the polls, $72 million should have been more than enough to win easily no matter what he spent. 

Sex versus money: Which has the political juice this year?

In terms of sexual politics, South Carolina is admittedly a test case. Last year the Palmetto State was glued to stories about Gov. Mark Sanford, who disappeared from the state police grid, flew to a secret one-week tryst in Argentina and then re-emerged at the governor's mansion to announce he had found his soul mate — except that it wasn't Jenny, the first lady. The Sanfords soon were divorced and the popular ex-first lady threw her support behind little-known state lawmaker Nikki Haley, the family-values candidate later endorsed by GOP star Sarah Palin.

Ironically, political pundits had thought Jenny Sanford would run to succeed the governor, thereby surpassing the legendary Pa and Ma Ferguson of Texas. Pa was James, the 26th governor of Texas, impeached and convicted on several counts of misconduct in office, thus making him ineligible to serve again. So six years later, he had the brilliant idea of running Ma, Miriam, for governor with the slogan, “two governors for the price of one.”

Mrs. Ferguson went on to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, thus assuring her victory in those days of one-party Southern rule. The two lovers of things gubernatorial are buried next to each other. But Jenny Sanford decided against running, and this opened the door for the political phenomena nicknamed Haley's Comet.

Once in the lead, the rumors of illicit sex began to emerge, and now two men have stepped forward to admit affairs. Haley and her husband call the sex charges a smear. But the men are sticking to their stories. It's a primary like no other in memory. Who are these guys — are they trying to win a tour card with professional golf?

Over on the Other Coast, even interest in the sex lives of Hollywood stars had faded in the shadow of the state's incredible $42 billion budget deficit. That's equal to two yearly South Carolina budgets! 

“The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees, money is what I want, a whole lot of money is what I want,” Barrett Strong famously sang in his hit “Money,” which later became a hit for the Beatles. Golden State voters agree.

So they ask themselves: After spending $72 million, what does it say about Whitman that she can't seem to push back an underdog challenger who was initially written off by GOP voters? She appears to be another politician whose talent is to blow through a lot of money with negative results.

Why not elect Lindsay Lohan?

On the Pacific Coast, the Republican primary revolves around the mystery of Meg's big spending, with voters trying to figure out whether it is a cautionary tale. Back here on the Atlantic Coast, the GOP primary revolves around the mystery of Nikki's family values, with voters trying to figure out whether the former Mrs. Sanford got it wrong again about love and marriage.

Truth is, some Hollywood-style rumors about Meg probably would give her a big win; and having $72 million to spend in South Carolina would make it nearly impossible to beat Nikki. Now over in the state of Washington, the issue is drugs, and if the polls are right, the next governor is likely going to be a supporter of legalizing pot.

Luckily, for those looking for a lifeline in politics, we have a buffet of entertaining stories heading into the summer.

So which is it: money, sex or drugs? S

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist who worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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