Dem debate College of Charleston (copy)

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Charleston businessman Phil Noble, state Rep. James Smith and Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis at a recent College of Charleston debate. In a new podcast, Noble compared Smith's shifting stance on gun regulations to "a Klansman taking his sheet off. Caitlin Byrd/File/Staff

COLUMBIA — An already combative Democratic primary for South Carolina governor is turning increasingly feisty.

In a podcast released Thursday with former state lawmaker Bakari Sellers, Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble compared state Rep. James Smith's shifting stance on gun regulations to "a Klansman taking his sheet off and saying, 'Well, I've changed.'"

"I don't believe that," said Noble, who has repeatedly highlighted Smith's previously positive ratings from the National Rifle Association.

The comment was roundly criticized by Democrats and others as extreme.

Smith, a combat veteran and 22-year lawmaker from Columbia, received an "A" rating from the NRA in 2006, a B+ in 2008 and an "A-" rating in 2010 and 2012, meaning the group considered him a "solidly pro-gun candidate."

More recently, however, Smith earned a "C" rating in 2016, which the NRA characterizes as a candidate with a "mixed record or positions on gun-related issues, who may oppose some pro-gun positions or support some restrictive legislation."

Smith has now been given a seal of approval from "Moms Demand Action," one of the country's most prominent gun control groups.

For the most part, Smith has tried to refrain from hitting back at his primary opponents but the Klansman analogy changed that.

"The inflammatory comments made by Phil Noble on the podcast with Bakari Sellers this week are nothing short of defamatory and have no place in modern-day discourse," said Smith's campaign spokeswoman Alyssa Miller.

Noble's comment was "especially unnerving," Miller said, because he has been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and paid to help erect a plaque in Charleston where the Ordinance of Secession was signed.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the nation's largest Southern heritage group, has come under fire in recent years from critics and some of its own members who say it has become increasingly radical in its defense of Confederate history.

Noble said he joined the group due to his interest in his family genealogy but resigned several years ago when the group started changing tone. As to the plaque, Noble said he has contributed to many historical markers around Charleston, including one near his house that commemorates African-Americans who fought against lynching.

The Klansman comment drew rebukes from Democrats and Republicans. 

Rob Godfrey, a former spokesman for ex-Gov. Nikki Haley, tweeted that Noble's remarks are "beneath the dignity of a candidate for governor."

Former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison called the statement "absolutely disgraceful."

"We have to be better than that!" Harrison tweeted. "I believe all of our candidates are good and well intentioned people! I understand that primaries can be contentious, but this crossed a decency line."

Noble stood behind his remark.

"Doesn’t cross any of my lines," Noble said. "It's true."

Also seeking the Democratic nomination for governor is Marguerite Willis.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.