COLUMBIA, S.C. - Molly Spearman and Sally Atwater finished the eight-way GOP race to be South Carolina's next education superintendent within 1,500 votes of each other. Voters return to the polls Tuesday to decide who will be the Republican choice in November.

Spearman, director of the state Association of School Administrators, led the field in the June 10 primary, but only by half of a percentage point. Both she and Atwater, the widow of GOP strategist Lee Atwater, took roughly 22 percent of the vote.

Both tout their classroom credentials.

Sally Atwater, 63, taught 9 1/2 years at schools in Rock Hill, Gilbert and Columbia before moving to Washington with her late husband. After three decades there, she moved back to South Carolina in 2012 and returned to the classroom, teaching special education in Walterboro. She resigned in February to campaign full-time, saying she wanted to give teachers a voice.

For the last decade, Spearman, 60, has led the group that advocates for about 3,600 K-12 administrators across the state. Her previous roles include 18 years as a music teacher and two years as an assistant elementary school principal.

The runoff got off to a strange start as third-place finisher Sheri Few, who took 19 percent of the vote, called on Atwater to bow out and let her compete instead, which Atwater's campaign called absurd. As Atwater picked up endorsements from the race's fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Gary Burgess and Amy Cofield, Few hammered away at her candidacy.

Few called Atwater "woefully unprepared for the job," pointing to Atwater's interview with conservative WORD radio station host Russ Cassell. The interview, along with Cassell's comments afterward that Atwater was "clueless," went viral, even finding its way to a Washington Post blog.

Luke Byars, Atwater's spokesman, points out that Cassell had endorsed Few. The call-in interview occurred the day after the primary.

"Those comments were political in nature. They were planned to make us look bad," Byars said.

State GOP Chairman Matt Moore stepped in to settle Few's odd request.

"This was a close race for first place, not second," he said. "Sore losers shouldn't make themselves the center of attention - it damages our electoral process."

Spearman has been endorsed by the primary's seventh- and eighth-place finishers, Elizabeth Moffly and Don Jordan. Superintendent Mick Zais, who did not seek a second term, endorsed Atwater after his former deputy superintendent, Meka Childs, placed sixth in the race.

While Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is not picking sides in the contest, her appointee to the State Board of Education, Mike Brenan, has endorsed Spearman. Brenan is also co-chairman of TransformSC, a business-driven education reform initiative. Spearman is a board member of the initiative, launched last year.

Both Atwater and Spearman say they want to implement the governor's education improvement plan, which focuses on poor, rural students. Atwater said she got excited after reading the plan on her district's website. Spearman was among the educators Haley met with to develop the budgetary suggestions she released in January. Both attended Haley's celebration earlier this month of her plan's passage in the state budget.

Byars questions Spearman's Republican credentials.

"She's not really a conservative Republican," he said.

Spearman says that's a tactic often used for people who have switched parties, including Ronald Reagan.

A native of Saluda, Spearman was elected to represent Saluda County in the South Carolina House for four terms, the first two as a Democrat. She was among lawmakers who switched parties in 1995, after Republicans gained control of the House and took over most of the state's constitutional offices. Spearman says she's voted in every GOP primary since. In 1998, she campaigned for Democrat Inez Tenenbaum's Republican opponent for state superintendent. But after Tenenbaum won, she asked Spearman to be her legislative liaison. Spearman was the agency's deputy superintendent of government relations for six years and Tenenbaum's chief of staff for one.

The winner of the GOP runoff will face the winner of the Democratic runoff for superintendent. Sheila Gallagher and Tom Thompson face each other in that race Tuesday.