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North Charleston Fire Department responded to a fire aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin at Detyens Shipyards.

Congressional hopefuls Tim Scott and Paul Thurmond are very conservative Republicans with much in common, but with a high-stakes runoff election just days away, they sought to highlight their differences at a debate Friday night before a tea party crowd.

The most obvious difference between the two -- race -- was not hinted at during the roughly 80-minute sparring match in Charleston, a city acutely aware of such things.

The national media have been quick to note that the contest pits Thurmond, son of the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, against Scott, who would be the first black Republican South Carolina has sent to Congress since Reconstruction, but the candidates look right past that construct.

Scott and Thurmond served together on Charleston County Council for years, and usually voted together.

They are former colleagues and fellow GOP politicians with their eyes set upon the same 1st Congressional District seat, and having both survived a bruising nine-candidate primary, they are pushing hard into Tuesday's runoff.

At the debate, Thurmond won a coin toss and spoke first, using his time to criticize a "broken" Washington where spending is out of control and to promise effective service if he's sent there.

Scott came right out swinging, saying that anyone who (like Thurmond) is not categorically opposed to all earmarks stands with President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"The question we must ask ourselves in America is, do we want to look like Greece?" Scott said.

With the two agreeing on so much -- both want smaller government and lower taxes, support the Fair Tax, oppose "Obamacare" -- earmarks have emerged as a sticking point, as have term limits and the question of which candidate is less of a career politician.

"He has a history of not getting the job done because he's so focused on winning another race," Thurmond said.

Thurmond frequently noted the

number of times Scott has run for public office and the fact that Scott has been in one public office or another since 1995.

Scott, 44, of North Charleston, is a state House member who is in the insurance and real estate businesses. He served on Charleston County Council for 13 years, during which time he ran for the state Senate and made a bid for state treasurer, before winning a House seat in 2008.

Scott launched a campaign for lieutenant governor at the end of 2009, but early this year decided to run for Congress instead.

Scott said that if he's elected to Congress he would limit himself to four terms, and challenged Thurmond to do the same.

Thurmond said he supports term limits and thinks the Constitution should be changed to require them, but that he wouldn't impose one on himself because that would limit his effectiveness in an institution where seniority is valuable.

Thurmond, 34, of James Island, is an attorney and Charleston County Council member. He previously worked as a prosecutor in the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

On earmarks, Scott takes the position that all earmarks are bad, and are a corrupting influence in Congress. He said he would not pursue or accept earmarks, which are spending items that don't go through the usual review process but are inserted in spending bills by members of Congress.

Thurmond said he doesn't like earmarks and would not support any unless they create jobs and are fully paid for, but he said that if earmarks are what it takes to get Interstate 73 built in Myrtle Beach or to get the Charleston Harbor dredged to support jobs, then he would go for them.

Both candidates applauded Arizona's controversial new law requiring police to demand identification from people suspected of being illegal immigrants, and Scott noted that he has proposed similar legislation in South Carolina.

Scott called for completing a border fence, and Thurmond said English should be the official national language.

"We need to remove everyone who is here illegally," Thurmond said. "They need to go back where they came from."

Thurmond did stumble at one point, when the candidates were asked if they had read and signed the "Contract from America," a tea party manifesto that's been promoted by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped craft the 1994 Contract with America.

Thurmond said he wasn't familiar with the document. Scott quickly noted that he has signed it and incorporated it into his campaign material.

The candidates also disagreed over which was supported by "special interests." Scott said Thurmond received more donations from Washington and from lobbyists, while Thurmond said Scott came with "strings attached" because interest groups were bankrolling him.

The conservative Washington political action committee Club for Growth has pumped more than $53,000 into Scott's campaign in just the past week, Federal Election Commission filings show.

The winner Tuesday faces Democrat Ben Frasier in the general election Nov. 2.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or dslade@postand courier.com.