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Katie Arrington and Joe Cunningham make final scramble in heated SC congressional duel

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Katie Arrington and Joe Cunningham spent their last full day of campaigning in South Carolina's most-watched congressional race by playing to their bases, with Cunningham sticking around blue Charleston County and Arrington reaching out to conservative Hilton Head Island and Summerville.

While they both tried to convince voters during a joint morning event they were the candidate to work across the aisle, their messages diverged as well.

Cunningham painted a picture of a tight race where voters should support an advocate for the district, regardless of party.

"This political tribalism that's going on in our nation is just ripping us apart at our moral fabric, and we see it every day," he said. "It pits neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife, brothers against sisters — and it's got to be put to an end."

Arrington warned voters that conservative victories under President Donald Trump could be erased if Democrats take control in Washington.

"I appreciate my opponent saying he won't vote for Nancy Pelosi, but the problem is Nancy Pelosi already has the votes, so he's kind of negated himself," Arrington said. "So what he said to you today sounds great in theory but is horrible in execution."

Both Arrington and Cunningham are in a surprisingly fierce fight to represent the Lowcountry in Congress and claim a seat that has been controlled by Republicans since the Reagan era.

The district spans much of the South Carolina coastline from Charleston south, with boundaries wrapping around parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties linking a conservative mix of retirees, suburbanites and military veterans.

While there are signs the race is tightening, the 1st District is still the GOP's to lose: departing incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford won re-election in 2016 by 80,000 votes against weak opposition out of 300,000 cast.

President Donald Trump also bested Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the district by 13 points in 2016.

The two congressional candidates' itineraries had them making multiple stops Monday in the hours before the polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Cunningham would finish the day at a rally at the longshoremen's union hall in Charleston — a traditional Democratic gathering spot — while Arrington was getting help from the White House.

On Hilton Head, Donald Trump Jr. and girlfriend, former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, now vice chair of America First Policies, a pro-Trump advocacy group and super PAC, spoke to a crowd of supporters with Arrington on the stage. It was before she was scheduled to return home to Summerville for her final event of the campaign Monday night.

"I know that she will help my father," Trump Jr. said of Arrington, adding that she has the guts to take on political fights in Washington.

Earlier in the day at Arrington's second stop on the trail, she shook hands with breakfast patrons at Page's Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant, posing for photos with the wait staff.

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"We just think the world of her," Wild Dunes voter Sheryll Johnson gushed after meeting Arrington. "She listens."

Her husband Darrell Johnson chimed in, calling Arrington an honest person who is good with people.

"And when she gets up there in Washington, I'm going to give her a pump to drain the swamp," he said, prompting laughter from the table.

Arrington traveled Monday in her white 2016 Dodge Challenger that has her name plastered on the sides. Her husband calls it the "swamp buggy."

Another trend surfaced Monday of how high the interest is in this race. The two counties where Arrington and Cunningham spent much of their time campaigning Monday, Charleston and Beaufort, reported the biggest spikes statewide in in-person absentee balloting.

Cunningham, meanwhile, opted for a more low-key approach. The West Ashley construction attorney spent his afternoon talking to voters in two area sandwich shops and at absentee polling locations. 

"The more we demonize folks on the other side and the more we hurl names and insults, it doesn't set a great tone for getting things done," Cunningham said. "And we're not going to get anything done if we elect people who are divisive and are going to spew that type of rhetoric."

Charlie Roper, a Cunningham supporter, was excited to see him in person during the afternoon. 

"I usually see him in the water," she joked, referring to an a TV spot in which Cunningham is swimming in the ocean. 

Meeting people out in public was in part an attempt to play to his strengths. Cunningham admits readily he's not as comfortable speaking to a large room.

"I'm much more engaged in the one-on-one. I think people have picked up on it, too," he said.

Arrington has made her commitment to supporting the president's agenda a key part of her pitch to voters. In campaign ads and one-on-one conversations with voters, she has touted her connections to the Trump administration.

But when Arrington entered the S&S Cafeteria in West Ashley, she faced a question about offshore drilling. It's a topic that Arrington has described as being "manufactured" by Cunningham. It is also one she has struggled to overcome after stating in the primary that she support the Trump administration's decision to lift the ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

"It's a moot point. There's no oil off the coast of South Carolina," Arrington said after stating she was opposed to offshore drilling and seismic testing off South Carolina's coast.

On Tuesday, they will find out whether their efforts were enough to make it to Washington.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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