By Andrew Shain

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday that she endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for president because he was best suited to restore Republican principles of limited government and cutting debt.

"I want a president who understands they have to go back to Washington, D.C., and bring a conscious back to our Republicans," Haley, a Republican, told a crowd of hundreds gathered outside a Chapin warehouse.

Haley said she made the decision as a mother who wants safer, more prosperous nation for her children and as the wife of a combat veteran who wants more support for the military.

The governor did not say why she didn't choose other candidates for Saturday's GOP primary.

"We have good people running for president, and I thank them today for their sacrifice and their willingness to serve and to honor this great country and make her better," 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 of the 2016 presidential race.

"She embodies for me everything that I want the Republican Party and conservative movement to be about," Rubio told the crowd.

The governor's endorsement comes at a critical time for Rubio.

The Florida senator needs momentum in South Carolina after finishing fifth in New Hampshire after a rattled debate performance. Rubio trails Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the Palmetto State with three days ahead of the South Carolina GOP presidential primary.

Haley joins U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Spartanburg Republican who heads a special panel investigating the Benghazi attack, in endorsing Rubio.

Haley has decided to back the establishment candidate considered to be in best position to challenge Republican front-runners Trump and Cruz.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has shared advice on education issues with the governor and helped her raise money for her re-election bid in 2014, also was considered a top contender to win Haley's endorsement. His father and brother, both former presidents who won the South Carolina presidential primary, have reached out to Haley in recent weeks.

But he has lagged in recent South Carolina polls, falling to fifth in the six-candidate GOP field. Rubio sits third.

Haley's decision was a bit of a reversal in the past day. The governor told reporters Tuesday that she had not made up her mind on who to back in the 2016 race.

She endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. While the former Massachusetts governor won the GOP nomination, he lost the South Carolina primary to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, breaking the state's three-decade streak of voting for the candidate who landed on the November ballot.

Haley and Rubio share similar backgrounds. They are both 44-year-old children of immigrants who were elected to their current seats in the tea party fervor of 2010.

Rubio first met Haley when they were first running for their current offices. The senator spoke at the South Carolina GOP party's annual dinner in 2012, a way for him to start building relationships in early-primary state. They have communicated while Rubio has been on the trail.

The senator has said during stops in South Carolina this week that Haley would make a good vice president. Haley has become a favorite to make vice presidential short lists after her handling of last year's Charleston shooting and successful call to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. She gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union last month.

Haley's endorsement, while arriving a little later than expected, was not a complete surprise.

She said she would not back Trump. She said she was referring to him as one of the "angriest voices" in her State of the Union response and criticized him over 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.

(c)2016 The State (Columbia, S.C.)