GREENVILLE - Candidates hoping to unseat South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got their last, best chance to take shots Tuesday in the race's final televised debate, and they wasted no time in doing so.
Amid polls that show Haley with a comfortable double-digit lead two weeks before the election, her opponents often strayed from the topics at hand - primarily on education and healthcare - and stuck with familiar lines of attack onstage at Furman University.
Haley was joined by Democrat Vincent Sheheen, independent Tom Ervin, Libertarian Steve French and United Citizens candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves. The debate was hosted by the Post and Courier and four television stations, and a panel of journalists asked the questions.
Reeves, an unknown polling in the low single digits, seemed to steal much of the debate's oxygen, at times making impassioned pleas and then drawing laughs with outlandish comparisons and wayward one-liners.
Democrat Sheheen and petition candidate Ervin sought to draw the most political blood from the incumbent, hitting her on ethics issues and perceived failures, including the controversy surrounding the Department of Social Services.
But they also sought to point at Haley's education agenda as one that was found only as the election loomed, a characterization the governor denied.
Haley said the education reform package passed by the Legislature and signed by her this year aimed dollars at rural, impoverished schools. "For the first time, we can say children in South Carolina don't get funded based on where they live," she said.
Gibbs Knotts, a politics professor at the College of Charleston, said the starkest contrast between the candidates came on a question about domestic violence. South Carolina ranks as one of the top states where men kill women they know, the subject of a recent Post and Courier series called "Till Death Do Us Part."
Haley was the sole candidate who said she would not seek to restrict access to firearms for those convicted of domestic violence. The governor is well-known for her support of gun rights and holds a concealed weapon's permit.
Knotts said both Sheheen and Ervin landed "solid punches" as they sought to differentiate themselves from Haley two weeks before Election Day. Experts have said that as Haley's lead in the polls creeps up, the candidates have less time to make up lost ground. The latest Post and Courier poll released Monday showed Haley leading Sheheen 51 percent to 31 percent, with 11 percent going to Ervin among likely voters polled.
Beating Haley always loomed as a tough challenge in a red state where Republicans fare well in non-presidential elections and where Democrats haven't won a statewide race in years.
The debate's most contentious tit-for-tat came between Sheheen and Haley, who traded jabs familiar to those following the campaign.
After Sheheen criticized Haley for her comments on domestic violence, the governor shot back by saying that the Democrat has represented criminal clients convicted of domestic abuse and other charges.
"Don't talk to us about domestic violence," Haley told the Democrat.
Referring to a past ethics complaint against the governor, Sheheen said that lawyers aren't the problem and he wouldn't apologize for his role as one. As an S.C. House member, Haley was accused and later cleared of ethics accusations.
"She's hired more lawyers than any governor in the history of this state," Sheheen said.
DSS has been accused of mismanaging children in its care, leading to their injury and sometimes death. A recent audit of the department found that the number of children that have died under its care is higher than the agency previously reported.
Ervin said it was the reason he jumped into the race. "What do we get now right before the election? Suddenly they've found the money to hire 120 new case workers," Ervin said of the agency's recent announcement. He said Haley was slow to react.
"We could have saved so many lives," Ervin said.
Haley responded by saying that the issues facing the agency are difficult and the department has long been troubled.
"As a mom and as a governor it is very hard to wrap your arms around the fact that you have to protect children against their own parents," Haley said.
Haley's opponents also disagreed with the governor on the expansion of Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor, under the Affordable Care Act.
Ervin said that he is against many parts of Obamacare, but his Christian faith provides that he should care for the less fortunate. Sheheen said that it's "insane" to send federal tax dollars paid by South Carolinians to other states.
Haley responded by focusing on the health care act, parts of which have been unpopular. "It was a bait and switch for Obamacare," Haley said of expanding Medicaid. "It wasn't good then, it's not good now and we're not going to be a part of it."
The most startling line of the night came from Reeves, the only African American in the race. In arguing for higher wages, Reeves said: "We are living in a big slave plantation here." He said he would double the wages of every South Carolinian if elected.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.