Governor candidates try to make impression

joconnor@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2010 

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From Jobs and the economy took a back seat at times to the legacy of Gov. Mark Sanford and the differences among state Republicans embodied by the politics of U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham in Thursday's GOP gubernatorial debate in Charleston.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster took questions from MSNBC "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski at Memminger Auditorium.

The debate sputtered at its beginning, as sound issues forced producers to stop the questions a few minutes in and restart it. Those watching at home reported problems with the Internet feed.

Much of the debate focused on issues - such as the economy and federal bailouts - but also on image - with candidates asked to weigh in on Sanford and side with Graham or DeMint.

Though he admitted to poor word choice recently for comparing feeding poor children with feeding "stray animals," Bauer said Thursday that political correctness was "killing" the state and country and he would continue to speak out.

Bauer's earlier comments, that parents on public assistance should be drug tested or their benefits withheld if they are not attentive to their children's schooling have drawn national attention.

The media created the controversy, Bauer said. "Somebody is going to have to step up and tackle the tough questions."

With Sanford sitting just yards away, Scarborough asked the candidates if his two terms had been good for the state.

Haley, R-Lexington, said Sanford, with his bully pulpit and veto threat, caused lawmakers to rethink some spending items. But she said she was disappointed in the governor, and that he should not have been the sole face of those looking to change the way the state is governed.

Sanford failed to bring people together, Barrett said, something his time in the Legislature and Congress would allow him to do.

McMaster emphasized his executive experience in bringing groups together as attorney general.

As she did several times during the evening, Haley used a question about whether she was more like DeMint or Graham to point out her differences from the field. She was the only candidate who said she would have voted to censure Graham, and said he owes voters an explanation for his stances on a controversial energy bill, nicknamed cap and trade, and other issues.

On the DeMint and Graham question, Bauer chose to side with DeMint, but said he would have spoken with Graham privately.

Both McMaster and Barrett rejected the choice and censure.

"I'm not going to take the bait," McMaster, a former state GOP chairman said. "I love this party. The last thing I will do is drive a wedge in it."

Haley took a question about state incentives given to Boeing and criticized Barrett's 2008 vote to bail out banks.

"It was a terrible mistake," Haley said, because it led to the federal stimulus and two bills propping up the auto industry.

She did not address the Boeing incentives, but called the aerospace company's new plant a "great win." Why not give incentives to businesses here, she asked.

Barrett, as he has many times, said he believed at the time that banks were about to go bust, and that people would not be able to withdraw money from an ATM.

"It was a vote I took at that time with the information I had," he said.

The candidates also disagreed over accepting federal stimulus money, including a recent loan to rebuild J.V. Martin School in Dillon County.

McMaster and Barrett both said they opposed the concept, but that state residents should get the benefits of their tax dollars.

"That is our money," McMaster said. "We sent it to Washington and we need to get it back."

But Haley rejected that idea.

"I don't want any Washington bailout money of any kind," she said.

All of the candidates supported a review of state taxes as a way to improve the business climate. Broad and low taxes are fairer, McMaster said. Barrett said he wants an economy where S.C. students can find a job across the street instead of across the country. Bauer proposed an inland port in the Greenville-Spartanburg area to create jobs. Haley advocated eliminating the small business income tax to spur employment.

The Republican primary is June 8.

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