James Smith needs a fourth-quarter miracle.

The Democratic nominee for governor lags behind Republican Gov. Henry McMaster in public and private polls — and is doing little to move the needle less than two weeks before Election Day.

His one major ad featuring his wife, Kirkland, speaking about how the Taliban called her after Smith lost a phone in an Afghanistan fire fight has not been a viral hit like other more personal campaign spots from Democrats in Florida and New York.

The campaign is not drawing national media attention like the governor's race in Georgia, and Smith is not receiving much national support.

The Democratic Governors Association, which encouraged him to run, has not come to his aid with ads. The public support from former Vice President Joe Biden, who also pushed him to run, has amounted to a video and one campaign fundraiser.

Smith called McMaster the governor of 50 years ago at their previous debate in Florence, but the Democrat has run a very traditional campaign.

The shots Smith took at McMaster at their final debate Thursday in Greenville — calling him status quo and someone backing issues just to keep the job — felt stale.

He also speaks with a lot of government jargon — for instance, calling needed building repairs "deferred maintenance" in Thursday's debate. Not using the plain language (honestly made popular by the fella in the White House) makes connecting with casual voters difficult.

When he entered the race, Smith was seen as having a chance of becoming the first Democrat to win the Governor's Mansion in 20 years because McMaster does not excite Republicans across the state.

Smith had a notable back story by trading his job as a military attorney to become a combat officer at 37 and then head to Afghanistan, where he was wounded by a roadside bomb. He also has been a leader on progressive issues in the Statehouse for two decades.

But he has run a campaign aimed at winning a sliver of independent voters and a few dissatisfied Republicans — a common theme for South Carolina Democrats since they lost control of the Statehouse in 2000. 

It would have been interesting to see him run a more populist Democratic campaign — one aimed at the base with a smidgen of centrist stances that could appeal to swing voters.

He showed a bit of it at Thursday's debate when he poked McMaster for wanting to ban sanctuary cities in South Carolina when the state has none: "As governor, I'm going to focus on real problems, not imaginary ones. The reality is this: we have too long seen the politics of division playing people's fears and hate and prejudice in order to get elected. It does a disservice to people of our state."

But those moments have not happened frequently.

As some Republicans might feel a bit "blah" about McMaster, who's running in his second governor's race and his seventh statewide campaign, Smith is not exciting enough voters willing to fire the governor.

It would not be surprising that McMaster is planning his inauguration already. 

Smith can try to catch up with a fiery final few days of campaigning, but, so far, he has not shown the willingness to stake out those differences in a way that tips the race away from McMaster, who has had to do little to defend his record in nearly two years in the governor's office.

That has allowed the governor to coast through his campaign without much turbulence.     

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Maybe that will change before Nov. 6.

A first of its kind 

There have been lieutenant governor debates before in South Carolina, but the one on Monday will be a first.

And it is the most intriguing of the 2018 campaign.

Republican Pamela Evette and Democrat Mandy Powers Norrell are the first running mates of governors in South Carolina history. Lieutenant governors were elected separately from the governor until 2014.

The debate airing on ETV pitches a political pro versus a "civilian."

Norrell is a Lancaster bankruptcy attorney who ran for state Senate before winning a House seat in 2012. She quickly became a rising star in the Democratic Party, even giving the response to Gov. Nikki Haley's State of the State addresses in 2016.

Evette, running in her first election, was a surprise pick by McMaster last year. She's a Travelers Rest business owner who few knew outside of the Upstate business community. The Ohio native can thank her ties to former state Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd for a chance in politics.

Conventional wisdom is that Norrell will dominate the debate. But since Evette remains a bit of an unknown, there could be surprises.

If for nothing else, watch at 7 p.m. Monday to meet the candidates who could become governor, just like McMaster did when Haley went to the United Nations last year. 

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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