[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/03/11/art.sanfordpt0311.gi.jpg caption="South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has a protege of sorts in the race to succeed him."](CNN) - One of Mark Sanford's top political allies is entering the race to succeed him as South Carolina governor.
Rep. Nikki Haley, a 37-year-old third-term state representative from Lexington, announced her bid on Thursday and immediately signaled that she will assume the Sanford mantle of fiscal conservatism.
"For more than five years I've sat in the statehouse and watched - sometimes in disbelief - as our state government has spent with abandon and in the process wasted taxpayer dollar after taxpayer dollar," Haley said in a statement.
In the state house, she has been a loyal backer of Sanford's small-government initiatives, proposals which have often irked other Republican lawmakers. Haley also plans to hire Sanford's Washington-based political consultant, Jon Lerner, to run her campaign.
Haley became the first Indian-American Republican state legislator in the country in 2004 after winning a nasty primary runoff that featured an anonymous mail attack calling attention to her non-white heritage.
She would become South Carolina's first female governor - if she can survive a crowded Republican primary already loaded with South Carolina GOP heavyweights who are backed by some of the state's best political strategists.
Although Haley is regarded as a rising star among South Carolina Republicans, several GOP operatives in the state not affiliated with rival campaigns told CNN they were surprised she is choosing to jump into a five-way primary now rather than wait for a clearer opportunity at a later date.
Other candidates in the race for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination include South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, South Carolina Rep. Gresham Barrett, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Sen. Larry Grooms and Furman University professor Brent Nelson.
UPDATE: Sanford released a statement Thursday praising Haley.
"Nikki Haley is a true conservative and one of our state's leading voices for fiscal responsibility and government reform," Sanford said. "It's too early to endorse anyone, but I would say Nikki Haley would make a terrific and inspiring choice as governor, and she's a great addition to the field of candidates."