ABC News’ Devin Dwyer reports: In their first televised debate, South Carolina gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley and Vincent Sheheen battled Tuesday over who would restore integrity to state government and revive a lagging economy after eight years of the scandal-plagued Gov. Mark Sanford administration.
Sheheen, a Democratic state senator, repeatedly cast his opponent as a would-be extension of the Sanford regime, saying this election is about “electing a governor we can trust.”
“If you look at what’s happened when these folks have been running our state… you can’t be anything but embarrassed," he said. Sanford has faced multiple ethics violations; a state treasurer was recently jailed for drug dealing; and, the agriculture secretary was convicted of bribery.
But Haley, a three-term Republican state representative with ties to Sanford, persistently steered her message towards the economy and growth of small businesses, saying that while Sheheen is “talking about the negative…I have spent all of my time talking about things that are going to create jobs.”
Haley, who would be South Carolina’s first woman and Indian-American governor, has held a steady lead in most polls since the June 8 primary. But the race has tightened in recent weeks.
A Winthrop University poll released Oct. 10 shows Haley with a 9 point advantage with 46 percent support to Sheheen’s 37 percent. Thirteen percent of voters polled remain undecided.
Sparks flew between Haley and Sheheen in exchanges over their personal and legislative records and during questioning about how each has made money while a state employee.
Haley aggressively accused Sheheen, a trial lawyer, of profiting from state taxpayers by voting to regulate the state’s so-called payday lending industry while simultaneously being part of a law firm that made money from suing them. “Senator I don’t think you should have your hands in both pots of money,” she said. “You do represent the state and you do sue agencies that the taxpayers pay.”
Sheheen later hit Haley for not disclosing all of her income sources or tax returns and for the controversy surrounding her departure from her most recent job as a hospital fundraiser. A collection of emails obtained by the Associated Press show that Haley was effectively forced out of her the job, despite her public statements that she left amicably and voluntarily.
During an exchange over a legislative measure to cut state lawmakers’ pay, Haley defended her opposition to the cut saying, “I didn’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars suing the state. You’re doing political silliness, senator.”
The candidates also wrangled over the use of state funds for local projects, or so-called political “pork.”
Haley criticized Sheheen for “voting to keep the state slush fund” and insisted she “voted against it every time.” But Sheheen argued that Haley was being duplicitous.
“This is exactly what the people of South Carolina are tired of – a politician who says one thing, says ‘I’ll sign your grant but I won’t help you get it,’” he said. “You applied for that money [on behalf of local groups] and then voted against it so you can stand up here and pretend like you’re some great taxpayer advocate.”
Haley has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the state's conservative base, which helped propel her to victory in the primary over three early front-runners. And she has the valuable endorsements of tea party groups, South Carolina's former first lady Jenny Sanford, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
It's unclear whether Palin, who is credited with helping to elevate Haley's campaign, will return to the state to help in the final stretch.
Meanwhile, Sheheen – a conservative Democrat – has convinced some members of the business community and Republicans to be relatively content with him, state political observers say.
Both camps say the final three weeks will be an intense battle for independent and undecided voters — and getting them to turn out.
"It's still an uphill battle for Vince Sheheen in a Republican dominated state in a Republican dominated election," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "Sheheen really has to continue to make people uncomfortable with Nikki Haley but that negative campaigning can depress turnout which would hurt him too."
The candidates have two more debates before election day, Oct. 25 and 26.