It looks like South Carolina Republicans will have that fight for their soul after all.

The GOP thought it had dodged such unpleasantness when U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham dispatched a half-dozen tea party cyborgs without the need of a runoff last week. The establishment, it appeared, was firmly in control.

But now the Republicans have a problem down-ticket: Sally Atwater versus Molly Spearman in the Education Superintendent runoff. And it's a doozy.

See, Atwater is a carpetbagger who just returned to South Carolina after years of working in the federal Education Department. In D.C.

That alone would get any Democrat branded the devil incarnate. It also doesn't help her education credentials that Atwater has shown a tendency to, well, make up words.

She used "flustrated" in a recent interview - twice - and displays scant knowledge of state education policy.

When conservative Upstate radio show host Russ Cassell asked Atwater to expound on her views of teaching science and sex education, the candidate hemmed and hawed so clumsily that it was embarrassing - well, to anyone who voted for her.

Cassell actually said, on air, that "What you have just heard is an example of a person running for public office on name recognition only who is clueless."

Ouch.

The problem for Republicans is that the alternative, Spearman, used to be - gasp - a Democrat.

The Molly Hatchet

The tea party folks are touting Atwater hard.

They say that Spearman has given money to Democrats, that she's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Republicans. Worst of all, she is a former education bureaucrat.

Two out of three of those, at least, are true.

But these folks bashing Spearman conveniently ignore Atwater's background. As if working for the federal Department of Education - which many Republicans detest so much they want to eliminate it - doesn't make her an uber-bureaucrat.

Spearman's problem is that she was elected to the Statehouse 20 years ago as a Democrat. She later switched to the Republican Party and served another four years in the House. And she has actually lobbied on behalf of educators, some of whom belong to - wait for it - unions!

This news is now heralded as proof of conspiracy.

Funny how so many people have short memories around here. Not more than 25 years ago, almost all this state's Republicans were Democrats. It was simply the only way to get elected.

Do we now need to also question the credentials of Strom Thurmond or Arthur Ravenel (who actually switched 50 years ago)?

Elizabeth Moffly - who was robbed, by the way - endorsed Spearman and criticized Republicans who are calling her a Democrat.

And Lord knows, Elizabeth is no liberal.

But Spearman was a Democrat recently enough that even some establishment Republicans are leaning toward Atwater. After all, Sally Atwater once had her picture made with Ronald Reagan.

Who, by the way, used to be a Democrat.

Grammar lessons?

Atwater has refused to debate Spearman in advance of next week's runoff.

Atwater's people say they aren't keeping their candidate under wraps, it's just that she already participated in a debate.

Well, if one is enough, why did the Republican presidential candidates in 2012 subject us to 873 of them?

Finally, on Tuesday, Atwater spoke. Sort of. She issued a bizarre semi-apology for her on-air antics last week.

"I want to apologize to anyone that may have been distracted by this and set the record straight," Atwater said.

Of course, the correct phrase would have been "anyone WHO may have been distracted" - but what's a little grammar flub among allegedly professional educators.

And she still didn't answer Cassell's question. She just spouted some baloney about Common Core.

Which is the political equivalent of "Hey, look over here - red meat!"

Bottom line, this whole thing is very flustrating to Republicans.

Do they go with Atwater, who is definitely a Republican (her husband was the dirty tricks master, Lee), but may be so inept that, unless they keep her in cryogenic freeze for six months, could get beaten by a Democrat?

Or do they go with the former educator and top vote-getter, Spearman? Who, by comparison, looks like a Rhodes Scholar.

But who, by the way, used to be a Democrat.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com