The State asked four political scientists from South Carolina — plus an expert in debates from the University of Michigan — for their assessment of Monday's Democratic debate for S.C. governor.
Monday's debate at the University of South Carolina was the last stage all three candidates will share before the June 12 primary.
Here's what South Carolina's Bob Oldendick, College of Charleston's Gibbs Knotts, Winthrop University's Karen Kedrowski, Furman's Danielle Vinson and University of Michigan's Aaron Kall had to say about the candidates' performance:
Best line or moment
Oldendick: "The best moment of the debate came in James Smith’s response to the other candidates’ questions about his ethics. He was able to neutralize this by referring to his competence as a lawyer and to turn the question from intra-party attacks to doing what is best for the state and winning in November. This response got the biggest applause of the night.
"The best line of the night also went to Smith in this segment. After Noble raised questions about his Smith’s ethics, (moderator) Charles Bierbauer asked him if he wanted to respond. Smith deferred, saying that he’d let Willis speak first, since he anticipated — correctly — that he would have to respond to both of them. One of the few laugh lines on the night.
"Second place goes to Noble’s comment on the governor’s role in education when he commented, 'Look at my two opponents. One of them thinks education is not the governor’s job and the other has proven he can’t do it.' A good — and underappreciated — line."
Knotts: "There were a number of good lines, but one of the best was when Phil Noble went after Marguerite Willis. She said, 'I know for a fact that rising sea levels are a big deal, because I have a house on a beach and I have watched the sea level rise.' ... Noble responded by saying, 'I don’t have a beach house. I wish I could afford it, but I don’t.' This was a good line by Noble because it labeled Willis an elite and out of touch with South Carolina voters. It was also impressive to come up with the line on the spot and in response to something his opponent said. Finally, Noble and Willis may be fighting to make the runoff against Smith — since Smith has the most money and endorsements — so the attack on Willis by Noble was a smart political move."
Kedrowski: "There were a lot of good lines, all of which came from Noble or Willis. My favorite came during the exchange over the public utility scandal, when Noble said to Willis, 'He's your law partner. You should know,' when discussing how the board chair was ousted. This line was best because it was less scripted than the others.
"I have two runners up. Runner up No. 1 (was) Willis on off shore drilling, 'Maybe we should give him (President Trump) a golf course.' It served to remind Democratic voters that they despise the president.
"Runner Up No. 2: Noble's dig at Willis. 'I don't have a beach house.' A lot of people, especially in a traditional political culture like South Carolina, find ambition and success admirable in men and distasteful in women. He noted Willis' success a couple of times and both in derogatory fashion, even though all three candidates, including Noble himself, are successful in their careers. So the line makes my cut because it's catchy. Yet it's also sexist."
Vinson: "Smith’s response to Willis’ comments that education isn’t the governor’s responsibility (it belongs to the Legislature). His response that it is the governor’s job and his use of specific governors who had an impact on education to make the point was powerful, especially given that improving education is a key to so many other problems facing the state that Democrats care about."
Kall: "Phil Noble telling Marguerite Willis he wished he had a beach house. Willis committed a major gaffe by saying she had a house on the beach, which made her seem elitist and out of touch with the average voter. Noble smartly pounced on this error by deftly making light of the unforced error.
"A close second would be Willis' line that 'girl power is here to stay.' Throughout the debate, she echoed this theme of female empowerment, which could be the deciding factor in the 2018 midterm elections. I do think Willis missed a major opportunity to criticize Noble's use of gendered language early in the debate, when he exclusively used the pronoun 'he' when taking about gubernatorial actions and the bully pulpit."
Worst line or moment
Oldendick: "The worst moment of the night was also during the ethics segment. This is an issue in which Smith’s experience works against him and Willis and Noble both see it as an area in which Smith is vulnerable (particularly given Monday’s developments in the case of Sen. (John Courson). But the attempts to tie Smith to statehouse corruption, particularly Noble’s saying that Smith should 'tell the truth' and telling him to read his own campaign finance statements, seemed to be desperate and to miss the point.
"Way back in second and third place as worst moments were Willis brief fumble with the 'on- cent' gas tax increase and Smith referring to 'Mr. Willis.' "
Knotts: "The worst line was when Marguerite Willis said, 'Education is not the governor’s job in this state.' Although the Legislature plays a large role in education, the governor signs legislation and can use the bully pulpit to advocate for education reform and education funding. Saying education is not the governor’s job is also a bad strategy in a Democratic primary since education is a particularly important issue for Democratic primary voters."
Kedrowski: "Smith's response to the polling question. He started by attacking the poll, floundering around a bit before he landed on the politician's standby, 'I don't care about the polls.' Of course, neither Willis nor Noble answered the question very well either."
Vinson: "Nothing jumps out here. Maybe by default, Willis' comment that the Legislature is in control of education just because it sounds like she’s giving up on that issue, but I’m not sure that’s how others would interpret it."
Kall: "James Smith was offered an opportunity to explicitly rebut Phil Noble's charge of crony corruption and he took a pass, allowing Marguerite Willis to opine on the same subject in a tag-team fashion against him. Smith should have never bypassed this opportunity and allow momentum from two candidates to build against him. He likely made this decision because he wasn't ready to respond and needed more time to craft an adequate response. Thinking on your feet in an impromptu fashion is an essential skill to exercise in political debates and also an important attribute of South Carolina's next governor.
"A close second would be Phil Noble saying, 'Unless I missed something, Donald Trump isn't on the ballot.' This stood in direct conflict to the other two candidate responses on the subject. Opposition to President Trump and his administration's policies will be essential to motivating Democratic primary voters to enter the voting booth on June 12."
Who won and why
Oldendick: "While there were no great knockout blows or gaffes in the debate, overall I believe James Smith won the debate. It started early with his answer to the first fact-checking question on Medicaid in which he challenged the fact check and strongly asserted that expanding Medicaid was something he could — and would — do as governor. Throughout the evening he was able to play on two broad themes: his experience and electability in November. On many of the questions, Smith was able to point to legislation that he had co-authored or attempts he had made to deal with the issue. For example, on infrastructure he was able to mention working on a high-speed lane proposal and on school consolidation he noted that he has already been talking with the (House) speaker on this issue."
Knotts: "I’d give the edge to James Smith. He made a strong case for being able to win in November and for having the experience to get his agenda through the Legislature if elected. He also talked effectively about the role the governor can play in education, citing education reforms from former Democratic Govs. Dick Riley and Jim Hodges. Smith did take some pretty serious hits from Marguerite Willis on his relationship to Richard Quinn and from Phil Noble on his representation of Attorney General Alan Wilson when he was in trouble for campaign finance violations. Marguerite Willis was strongest when criticizing Donald Trump, which can be a particularly effective strategy for a Democratic primary in 2018. Phil Noble continued to offer the boldest and most grandiose ideas about reforming state government.
Kedrowski: "It was James Smith's debate to lose. As the presumed frontrunner, he needed to stay on message, keep his cool, appear above the fray, and most importantly, not give the voters any excuse to shift their support to either Noble or Willis. Smith comported himself well and avoided most front runner's pitfalls. He also stayed on message, toting his experience and that of his running mate, (Mandy Powers) Norrell, without being defensive about his connections to the legislature."
Vinson: "James Smith. He seemed to have substantive responses to most questions. His ability to draw on legislative experience seems to give him a good understanding of the role the governor can play in the different situations the candidates were given. (Or that may be my own personal preference for people having experience for the job their applying for influencing my perceptions)."
Kall: "Phil Noble was tonight's debate winner. He and Marguerite Willis successfully teamed up on several occasions to put James Smith on the defensive, who subsequently had the worst overall performance. Noble consistently stressed his outsider status at a moment in time when voters are very anti-establishment while loathing career politicians. He demonstrated a lot of international knowledge over issues such as climate change and the environment. Noble deployed a lot of catchy zingers and one-liners throughout the evening and exhibited a folksy charm that could be attractive to undecided voters."