COLUMBIA — Two weeks before the primary that will decide if he stays in office, Gov. Henry McMaster pointed at a building near downtown Columbia housing what he called "the most extreme, the most destructive organization in this country today."
"There are young children, unborn children who are being killed right now as we're standing here just up that hill at Planned Parenthood," McMaster said at a news conference outside a faith-based pregnancy center. "There are young women who are having abortions."
Gathering reporters to talk about his stance against Planned Parenthood so close to an election was not much of a surprise. Abortion has been the biggest issue in the Republican race for governor this year — over roads, schools or the economy, concerns that usually worry most South Carolinians.
The five candidates running for the Republican nomination have aired ads focusing on their pro-life views and spent significant time during debates and forums picking apart details on each others' records on abortion.
"I am a bit mystified by how much time the candidates are spending on how much they love Donald Trump and how much they oppose abortion," Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said. "This does not distinguish them from each other and they all have the same position. Why spend most time talking about this?"
Abortion has always lurked around South Carolina Republican races, but the issue bloomed as a hot-button issue in the Statehouse this year with lengthy debates on bills that would ban the practice partially or all together. Republicans also are energized with a White House supporting pro-life matters and attacking Planned Parenthood.
"This is important to hardcore Republican voters: Being pro-life is their No. 1 issue," former state Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said. "You have to talk about it. It is necessary. The one who talks about this the most has a better chance of getting that vote."
South Carolina's Upstate region, centered in Greenville and Spartanburg, is the state's social conservative hub, a place where GOP voters expect candidates to take a strong anti-abortion stand.
"You can't become governor if you can't win the Upstate," Dawson said.
So the candidates are trying to woo voters by touting their endorsements from anti-abortion organizations as well as their stances.
Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton favors a total abortion ban, which was favored by 21 percent of South Carolina GOP voters in a 2015 Winthrop University poll.
McMaster, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, Greenville businessman John Warren and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill support an exception when the mother's life is in danger, a view backed by three out of four Republican voters statewide.
The same survey found more than half of GOP voters thought abortions should be legal in cases of rape and incest, which has no backing from among current Republican gubernatorial candidates.
When they are not promoting their own record, the 2018 GOP hopefuls are going after each other over how their rivals fail parts of a pro-life litmus test.
Bryant has criticized McMaster for allowing loopholes in his attempts to stop funding to Planned Parenthood. Templeton switched her position on abortion exceptions earlier this year. She has accused Warren of waffling on exceptions.
Republican voters around Greenville have grown tired of the bickering among the candidates over who is the true pro-life candidate, said Nate Leupp, chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party.
"Just arguing with each other seems petty to actual pro-life voters," Leupp said. "It's all semantics. When they see a candidate attacking another on this issue, they are driving undecided voters to go again them."
The three candidates considered most likely to land in the two spots for a runoff — McMaster, Warren and Templeton — say they are not ignoring other issues in the campaign but that abortion is an issue on another level.
"If you're not alive, you don't need a highway," McMaster said. "You don't need anything."
Warren said the candidates are talking frequently about abortion because the state's leader must protect all life, even the unborn. But the former Marine wants to broaden the abortion discussion.
"We often talk about pro-life and it kind of stops at birth, but we need to do a better job of discussing that pro-life includes early childhood," he said.
Templeton has shared the story in a television ad of how her life was endangered while pregnant with twins and how she ignored doctors' suggestions to abort one of them. The former state public health and labor agency chief said how the candidates view abortion provides some crucial insight.
"As people look to see who they want to fix their roads and trust to take care of the education system, they want to know where as governor you are going to go to make your decisions," she said. "What is you character? What do you value? So knowing life or not life is one of those indicators for people of where your base is in God and where your base is in a family."