The five Republican candidates for governor will face off for the first time in a Newberry debate tonight, giving voters a chance to size up the candidates vying to represent the GOP in 2010.
The debate featuring announced or potential candidates - U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Sen. Larry Grooms, state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster - comes nine months before voters head to the polls in next June's primary.
"It's the first time they're going to be paying attention," said Newberry County GOP chairman Chad Connelly. While party activists have picked their camps, Connelly said, the debate likely will introduce the candidates to most Republican voters.
The debate will be moderated by WIS television's Judi Gatson. Questions also will come from Newberry Observer editor Holly Astwood and Upstate radio host Bob McLain.
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Much of the state's political focus has been on Gov. Mark Sanford since he left the state in June on a secret five-day trip to Argentina, later admitting an extramarital affair. Sanford's conduct and future are likely to be debate topics.
But Connelly said the debate also will provide a way to look forward on issues such as taxes, employment and economic development.
Organizers are accepting questions on Internet video site YouTube.com, as well as at the county party sites. By Monday afternoon, public questioners had asked if candidates would support rewriting the state constitution, what their leadership traits are and how the candidates would "walk a mile" in the shoes of the current governor.Visit thestate.com starting at 7 p.m. for live updates from the debate.
"The baggage of the current administration is kind of on these guys," said Laurens County GOP chairman Bobby Smith. "Hopefully, (the debate) will give us a chance to raise new questions."
Economic development likely will be a top issue at the debate.
South Carolina has a 11.5 percent jobless rate, sixth highest in the country and 1.8 percentage points higher than the national average.
Two candidates, Barrett and McMaster, have said economic development is the central issue of their campaigns. The rest have addressed the issue as well.
Submitted questions also include good-government issues, such as spending transparency and on-the-record voting.
Candidates also will likely be asked about the policies of President Barack Obama, including health care reform and the economic stimulus.
While the debate is meant to target all S.C. voters, Connelly said it also is a rare opportunity to bring the field to Newberry County. Connelly expects 300 to 400 people to attend the debate at the Newberry Opera House, giving a boost to local businesses.
Come spring, Connelly said, the candidates are more likely to spend their time in Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, York and other larger counties.
"We're a great bellwether for the state. We've got a great cross-section," Connelly said of Newberry, adding the debate will "put a spotlight on a great little community."