(CNN) – After a poll Thursday showed Tea Party favorite Nikki Haley surging to the front of the pack in the race for the South Carolina's Republican gubernatorial nomination, her opponents acknowledged - but sought to downplay - her fresh momentum.
Haley, a state representative with little money and a meager statewide profile, entered the race last year as a dark horse candidate after supporters of Gov. Mark Sanford urged her to run under the reform mantle. Her small government views won over national conservative activists, but she struggled to make headway in her own four-way GOP primary.
That changed in recent weeks after Haley netted a surprise endorsement from Sarah Palin, who traveled to Columbia to appear with Haley at a rally. ReformSC, an advocacy group funded by allies of Sanford, ran TV ads backing her candidacy. Haley's campaign also went on the air with a tough ad attacking her rivals - Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Attorney General Henry McMaster and Rep. Gresham Barrett.
A candidate must capture 50 percent of the vote in the June 8 primary, an unlikely prospect that means the race will probably result in a runoff between the top two vote-getters.
Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson said in an e-mail to supporters Thursday that "our campaign is in the strongest position we've ever been" - a claim Haley's rivals aren't disputing.
McMaster's campaign admitted Thursday that their once little-known opponent is riding high.
"There is no question State Rep. Haley has enjoyed a temporary bump in the polls, which is not surprising," said McMaster consultant Richard Quinn in a statement. "However, our research and experience shows most Republican voters are ultimately suspicious of unknown candidates with slick TV campaigns promising hope and change. A majority prefer conservative reformers with a record of results."
The campaign released their own poll showing McMaster garnering 25 percent of the vote, followed by Haley at 23 percent while Barrett and Bauer were tied at 14 percent.
McMaster spokesman Rob Godfrey claimed that Haley "has enjoyed a measure of growth that has come at the expense of Congressman Barrett." (Barrett's campaign claims that McMaster's data comes from a so-called "push poll" that attacked Barrett - a charge McMaster's team denies.)
The Barrett campaign also acknowledged a Haley surge in an e-mail to supporters. "There's no denying it," the message read. "Nikki Haley got a bounce from Sarah Palin's endorsement."
Luke Byars, Barrett's campaign manager, told CNN that Haley "definitely got a Palin bounce." But, he said, "like every bounce, you come back down."
Byars predicted that Haley's numbers will tumble after more Republicans learn about her votes in the legislature to accept federal stimulus money. Haley defended those votes in a debate this week, calling them procedural.
"We feel like we are in a very good place right now to make the runoff," Byars said. "Everybody knows there is going to be a runoff. The question is, who is going to be in the runoff?"
He rejected the McMaster campaign's claim that Haley's rising profile is coming at Barrett's expense. McMaster, he argued, is "in a parachuting free fall."
The winner of the Republican primary will face the eventual Democratic nominee, either Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen or state Sen. Robert Ford.