South Carolina's four GOP gubernatorial hopefuls shared the stage at Memminger Auditorium on Thursday but didn't share the same thoughts on many issues, including their fellow Republicans.
Asked which of the state's two Republican senators more closely mirrored their own political philosophy, gubernatorial hopefuls S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster and 3rd District U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett declined to pick between Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham.
But that choice wasn't a problem for the others. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer instantly replied, "Jim DeMint," the senator whose conservative track record hasn't ruffled the party's base like Graham's more centrist approach has done. State Rep. Nikki Haley agreed: "Jim DeMint, hands down. ... Senator Graham should come around at some point."
McMaster noted that he served as chair of the state GOP, adding, "The last thing I'm going to do is drive a wedge through it."
Moderator Joe Scarborough of MSNBC told
Barrett he couldn't choose both, but Barrett did anyway, adding, "It's your question, but it's my answer."
That wasn't the only issue the candidates used to distinguish themselves before a few hundred Republican supporters in the downtown Charleston venue and many more watching across the state.
Haley was the only candidate to say the state should have refused its share of the $787 billion federal stimulus pie, a stand that Gov. Mark Sanford also took until the Legislature overrode him.
"Republicans have learned a lot of talking points, but they haven't learned the actions associated with those talking points," she said. "This is about being conservative. This is about understanding that whenever government gives our way, we don't want it because it breaks more than it fixes."
Bauer, who made national news recently with a controversial remark comparing the act of assisting poor children in schools to feeding stray animals, said political correctness is killing the country.
"I didn't find myself in a controversy. The media found the controversy," Bauer said. "I guarantee you if you polled most of the people in this room, they would concur. A lot of them."
Moderator Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC cut Bauer off and asked him what he was thinking by the parallel, to which he replied, "Surely, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't do that, but the people in the room, they didn't have a problem. ... I had a minority minister come up and say, 'Would you come over and say that in my church because you did it spot on.' "
But McMaster said Bauer's remark didn't hurt the party. "The Republican brand in South Carolina is so strong it cannot be broken," he said.
All four candidates had praise for Sanford. And while Barrett didn't criticize the governor, he said a few times he would model himself after the late former GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell. Unlike Sanford, Campbell had a cordial relationship with lawmakers, even though Democrats ran the Statehouse for much of his tenure.
"I offer leadership and will usher in an era of cooperation, collaboration and communication without compromising our conservative principles," he said.
News 2 anchor Brendan Clark also served as a moderator for the debate, which later was televised across much of the state. The debate began at 8 p.m. as scheduled, but sound problems forced a shutdown for more than 10 minutes, and it resumed from the top at 8:30 p.m.
The debate, which helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the state party, was preceded Thursday by a few other GOP fundraising events, including a first ladies luncheon at Memminger and two afternoon receptions.
The five Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls -- Columbia lawyer Dwight Drake, state Sen. Robert Ford, Charleston lawyer Mullins McLeod, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen -- are set to debate March 23 in Spartanburg.
McLeod, whose law office is less than a mile from the GOP debate site, held a food drive at a neighboring restaurant to help underprivileged children and to draw more attention to Bauer's remark of a week ago.
Best Zinger: During the soundcheck before the debate aired, the small talk turned to shoes. When the talk turned to state Rep. Nikki Haley's shoes, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said, Attorney General "Henry (McMaster) has a pair just like them."
Best Moment: Asked whether South Carolina voters should consider Bauer's several speeding violations, including one instance where he was clocked at more than 100 mph but not ticketed, Bauer replied, "They should. People of South Carolina have watched me mature. ... I'm awful proud of the fact that it's been six years since that happened. I have worked diligently to make sure that didn't happen in the future."
Best Defense: Asked whether he regretted voting for the controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program, 3rd District U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett said he did not, even though he has not been pleased with how the money has been spent. "It was a vote I took at that time with the information I had."
Biggest Gaffe: A week after stirring a controversy with a remark, Bauer said in his opening remarks, "The political incorrectness in this country is killing this country."
Best Dodge: Asked why he wouldn't say whether he will prosecute Gov. Mark Sanford on ethics questions uncovered in an investigation last year, McMaster said, "We are reviewing information on that now, but I promise you this: I won't let politics mix with law enforcement and prosecution. ... That's not a thing you rush or slow down for political purposes."
Second-Best Dodge: Asked how he could consider Sanford a good governor after he asked for his resignation following last summer's scandal, Bauer replied, "Our state was going through a difficult time. ... He's weathered the storm very well. I don't know quite frankly how he has done it."
Trickiest Question: Asked about the perception that she is Sanford's preferred candidate and whether that is a liability in light of his affair and absence, Haley replied, "I don't worry about liability. What I worry about is what we need to do to move South Carolina forward. ... I am personally disappointed by what has happened, but what I can tell you is the people of this state have saved tax dollars (because of Sanford)."