CLEMSON — Gov. Henry McMaster fired back Wednesday when his challengers accused him of not doing enough to fight for taxpayers and defund Planned Parenthood, saying he's doing all a governor can do.

Greenville businessman John Warren and former state agency head Catherine Templeton both said they'd prevent utility customers from paying any more for the failed nuclear power project in Fairfield County that they've been funding through their bills since 2009. 

"They're still taking our money and they’re throwing it in two holes in the ground," Templeton said in the debate sponsored by The Post and Courier and ETV in cooperation with the state Republican Party. "As governor, I'd get your money back." 

McMaster said he's the reason that reports and other information utility executives tried to keep secret was released after they abandoned the partially built reactors at V.C. Summer last summer.

"I'm the man who made sure we got the information," McMaster said.

He reiterated his promise to veto any bill the Legislature sends him that doesn't fully cut the 18 percent of South Carolina Electric & Gas customers' bills that still goes toward the $9 billion debacle. The House and Senate have been unable to agree on how much to cut. 

Warren and Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant said they would fire the entire board of state-owned Santee Cooper, the project's minority partner. But McMaster said that would be the wrong thing to do.

"Your credit rating will go to zero if you fire the whole board," McMaster said. 

All five candidates tried to out-do each other on their anti-abortion stances. Bryant — who, as a senator, sponsored bills making virtually all abortions illegal in South Carolina — challenged McMaster's assertion that he "defunded Planned Parenthood" through an executive order.

McMaster agreed his request requires federal permission, which his order directed the state's Medicaid agency to seek. That request is still in a required public comment phase.

"Let's not wait on permission from Washington," Bryant said.   

It marked the first time McMaster has faced his four challengers in a debate. His opponents have criticized him for not participating in two debates last week. 

In their first chance to go after him on stage, however, the candidates largely agreed with each other and kept to their campaign lines.

Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, who was a longtime Democratic senator, even said every person on the stage would make a good governor. 

All five agreed there's plenty of money in state government already — despite major problems in education, prisons, infrastructure and other government services — and that taxes should be further cut. 

All also opposed enacting a law that increases punishments for a hate crime, saying there are already enough laws on the books. 

"The notion of a hate crime is nothing more than a liberal agenda to violate free speech," Bryant said. "What kind of crime is not a hate crime?"

Warren, who touts his lack of experience in government, pointed to his background as a veteran and combat leader. 

"Who on this stage do you want to protect you when your life is in danger?" he asked. "We need a Marine."

Warren was the only candidate to go after anyone other than McMaster. He criticized Templeton, McMaster's closest competitor, for voting for Democrat Vincent Sheheen for governor in 2010 against Nikki Haley. 

Templeton, who's said Sheheen was a law school friend, reminded voters she headed two agencies under Haley. Templeton also repeatedly used her catchphrase "buzzsaw" in referring to herself. 

"I’m going to take a bigger blade with my buzzsaw" as governor, she said in her opening remarks. 

Both Templeton and McMaster brought up their ties to President Donald Trump. Templeton was interviewed at Trump tower for a potential job. 

McMaster reminded the audience he's the one endorsed by Trump, who he said will probably be "the greatest president in the history of our country." 

McMaster, who was the first statewide official nationwide to endorse Trump's bid, is trying to keep the job he ascended to in January 2017, when Haley became United Nations ambassador. 

While they were at Clemson University, McGill was the only candidate to recognize that on stage, noting two daughters graduated from the school.  

"Go Tigers!" he said in his opening sentence.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.