NEWBERRY - Volunteers thrust campaign signs high in the air, clanged cowbells and handed out chocolate chip cookies Tuesday as more than 400 South Carolinians gathered at the historic Newberry Opera House for the first GOP gubernatorial debate.
As TV cameras rolled, Newberry residents casually walked by the opera house, checking out the hubbub the political event had brought to their town, about 45 minutes northwest of Columbia.
Business owners spent all afternoon waving customers into their shops.
"We've brought in lots more business from lunchtime on," said Prissy Phillips, co-owner of Prissy's Newberry Antiques. "I love to see stuff like this happen in Newberry."
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Phillips, who is supporting Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in his gubernatorial bid, and her mother, Jean Phillips, said they were looking forward to watching the debate.
"I'm for Andre," Prissy Phillips said. "I'm hoping he'll talk about tourism plans to bring the tourism dollars back to South Carolina."
Jean Phillips said she's undecided on a candidate but definitely knows she doesn't want to hear any more about Gov. Mark Sanford from any of the GOP contenders. Sanford has been under scrutiny since June, when he secretly left the country for five days and then admitted to a yearlong affair with an Argentine woman.
"I don't want to hear about the past - not last year or three months ago," Jean Phillips said. "Let's move forward."
In the middle of the buzz in front of the opera house, Lawrence and Pat Grooms, parents of Sen. Larry Grooms, sat on a park bench, taking it all in. Grooms also is running for governor.
"He tries to do what's right for everybody. Everywhere he goes, he's met by enthusiastic people," said Lawrence Grooms of his son. "It's taken him awhile to figure out when to sit down and shut up, but he's gotten there."
Pat Grooms said she offered her son one piece of advice: "Go out there and knock their socks off, and I'll be praying for you."
A sea of Republicans
Several Republican lawmakers and candidates were on hand for the event, including Brent Nelsen, candidate for state superintendent of education.
Nelsen said he hasn't endorsed a candidate yet and is looking for one who will be his partner in reforming public education.
"He or she will set the tone for education in the state," Nelsen said. "We have got to do something to shake up the current system."
Expectations are as much a part of the debate game as what the candidates actually say, and the campaigns were working hard outside the hall prior to the debate.
Candidates Henry McMaster and Nikki Haley both had large squads of young folks handing out campaign materials or, in McMaster's case, greeting his arrival with his wife with a cowbell serenade.
Barrett's team was out as well, most notably money man Peter Brown, who is heading Barrett's field-leading fundraising efforts.
Candidates running for other offices, including lieutenant governor, attorney general and Congress, were working the crowd of mostly party activists.