Democratic hopefuls pound GOP

Ford (left), Rex (center), Sheheen (right)

The three Democrats running for governor jousted Wednesday over how best to lead South Carolina back to prosperity -- sometimes fighting with each other -- as they blamed poor management by the Republican majority for creating the state's fiscal mess in the first place.

"The blunt truth is our state has been driven into the ground" over much of the last decade, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen said.

Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said he hoped 2010 would be a time of "buyer's remorse, voter's remorse" in turning away from the GOP.

State Sen. Robert Ford added that Republican gubernatorial candidate Andre Bauer's comments, which compared people on public assistance to stray animals, illustrate GOP "gutter politics" at its worse.

In a lively, hour-long debate at the College of Charleston, the three hopefuls explained their visions for the future as they jockeyed for Democratic votes ahead of the June 8 party primary.

Much of the time was monopolized by Ford, D-Charleston, and his almost single-focused campaign to bring back video poker. The millions of dollars it would generate could fund everything from teacher pay to new school buses and jobs programs, he argued.

Ford's return to his gambling platform was so frequent that he was even baited in one exchange by panelist Carolyn Murray of News Channel 2. "All roads lead to video poker?" she said. "All roads lead to the state of South Carolina, to take care of its people," Ford answered.

It wasn't the only time Ford got combative. At another point he thought moderator Andy Savage was getting too pushy with his time management. "Andy, you never interrupt them; let me finish please," he said.

Rex drew his loudest applause by saying he would never support vouchers or tax credits as replacements to public education, a stance Sheheen agreed with.

Rex and Sheheen, D-Camden, also said much of the state's funding focus is misplaced. Rex questioned why the state's sales tax on items like new cars has been capped at $300 for years. "There's a whole bunch of exemptions like that that make absolutely no sense," he said.

He added that South Carolina could do several things, such as paying the $80 GED test fee, to help people get their education requirements finished. The state is in "an abysmal state of leadership," he said.

Sheheen said he looked forward to today when senators could try to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto of a bill raising the 7-cents-per-pack cigarette tax by 50 cents. It requires a two-thirds majority vote to become law.

One of the questions asked what the state could do to control illegal immigration. Ford said it was purely a federal issue.

"On Mexican immigrants, basically you have to look for the federal government for leadership there," he said, adding later, "We can whistle 'Dixie' all we want. We aren't going to make one change."

Rex said he strongly supported making sure employers obey the law of enforcing documented workers through audits. "We need to make sure that South Carolinians are being hired in the state," he said.

Sheheen said he hoped the push to control the state's borders doesn't get out of hand. If someone is here legally, he said, "then I'm glad they're here and I want to protect their rights to be here."

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill triggered a question on whether South Carolina should pursue such coastal drilling. Rex and Sheheen said there was no way they could support it, given the environmental calamity, but they could support looking for natural gas offshore.

Ford said ignoring the possibility of oil was short-sighted. "I am from Louisiana," he said. "I am not going to let one accident stop progress."

The debate broke little new ground as the candidates tried to win votes among the nearly 300 people in the audience.

But Ford gave one answer that is sure to be used by Republicans against him, if he wins the nomination. Claiming that he has been a longtime defender of traditional Democratic bases, including the working class, Ford said, "I've been protecting trial lawyers in the Senate" by fighting legislation that would "put them out of business."