NEWBERRY - South Carolina's candidates for governor took on jobs, education and Gov. Mark Sanford in their first debate Tuesday.
The candidates - Attorney General Henry McMaster, state Rep. Nikki Haley, state Sen. Larry Grooms, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett - were largely cordial and agreed on many of the issues.
But hanging over the candidates was the future of Sanford, who has been under fire since leaving the state for a secret five-day trip to Argentina in June. Sanford later admitted an extramarital affair. Lawmakers have said they are preparing to impeach Sanford when they return to Columbia in January, if not sooner.
The Sanford issue took center stage at first at the Newberry Opera House, as moderator Judi Gatson pushed Bauer on his offer to not run for governor if Sanford resigns from office. Bauer has said he will not announce for governor until late October - if Sanford has not resigned by then.
How can residents take Bauer's answers seriously, Gatson asked, if he has yet to commit to the race?
"I think I'm more committed to this state than anyone," Bauer countered, arguing South Carolina needs a strong leader to advocate for jobs. "Someone needs to step up and take that leadership role."
All five candidates were asked whether they considered themselves more like Sanford or the late former Gov. Carroll Campbell, also a Republican. Haley and Grooms refused to pick a political forefather. Barrett, Bauer and McMaster said they followed Campbell's tradition.
Haley was asked whether character matters more to voters this election, one of a handful of questions targeting candidates' perceived shortcomings. Haley, who many considered Sanford's pick as successor, said it was unhealthy to continue talking about Sanford and time to start talking about other issues.
Bauer took on character questions as well, referring to twice being pulled over while speeding on state highways but not receiving a ticket. It was unfair, Bauer said, to forget 13 years of service because of traffic infringements.
"Hopefully the people of South Carolina will forgive me for that," Bauer said.
Likewise, Barrett defended his vote in favor of a bank bailout bill last year after voting against the proposal at first. "People were going to go to ATM machines and not be able to withdraw any funds," Barrett said.
Despite those questions, jobs and economic development dominated the first third of the debate.
Many of the candidates argued in favor of an ongoing study of the state's tax structure. Haley and McMaster both advocated for a top-to-bottom review of state taxes.
"When taxes are low and broad," McMaster said, "the state will be able to correct its sixth-highest unemployment rate."
Grooms said lower income taxes would increase wealth, as well as reducing the cost and time of obtaining needed permits. Grooms said he would emphasize manufacturing jobs, each of which, he said, spins off about four additional jobs.
Bauer argued for a more collaboration in courting industry.
"You have people at the table making sure they have everything they need," Bauer said of bringing utilities, local government and others into negotiations with prospective companies.
The candidates largely agreed on education issues, most notably with all five supporting tax credits or vouchers for parents who send their children to private schools.
"Every school does not fit every child," said Barrett, whose wife is a public school teacher. "South Carolina should be challenging our public schools with choice."
Barrett and McMaster both said one key to raising graduation rates is the availability of a job upon graduation. Bauer said the state should create a separate work force preparatory degree to provide job training.
Haley argued school funding should not depend on what part of the state a student lives in, calling the formula a huge barrier to improving schools, something with which other candidates agreed. Grooms noted school funding formulas would penalize some districts financially if they consolidate, helping maintain the state's 86 districts.
The candidates bounced among issues in the debate's final section, which included questions about federal government interference, the Confederate flag on State House grounds and their leadership styles.
Grooms drew a cheer when asked what type of Republican he was.
"I cling to freedom, that's what kind of Republican I am," Grooms said.
Both Barrett and McMaster pointed to their time working as or with lawmakers on issues.
"I have no problem working with them," McMaster said, adding he would engage the General Assembly differently than his predecessor.
Many noted their issues with the federal government. Haley said she would oppose any future stimulus packages because of restrictions tied to the money. Grooms and others criticized the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act.
All five candidates said they would not push to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, agreeing the issue had been settled by the Legislature in 2002.
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.