COLUMBIA — Debating a week before the primary, the Republican governor candidates attacked each other Tuesday over whether one of them was turned down as a running mate and the continuing Statehouse corruption scandal.
The setting was as hot as the University of South Carolina's Drayton Hall Theatre where the air-conditioning was lacking on a near 90-degree day.
It was intensified by Gov. Henry McMaster being flanked on stage by his chief rivals, Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton and Greenville businessman John Warren. Templeton and Warren, touting themselves as outsiders while running in their first races, are vying for the second runoff spot against the governor.
Tensions have risen since Warren reportedly has reached or passed Templeton for second place in internal polls after starting his campaign a year after hers.
In the surprise the night, McMaster claimed Templeton asked to be his running mate, an offer he declined before trying to help her get a job in the Trump administration in late 2016.
His revelation led to loud murmurs in the crowded theater.
While the bickering could drive some attention to the race, it also could turn off some voters who want to hear the candidates discuss more substantive matters, like schools and the economy. But in a race where the candidates have done little to separate themselves on conservative issues, the campaign has become one where they question each other's integrity.
McMaster has tried to paint Templeton as a serial liar and Warren as an inexperienced newcomer. Templeton and Warren have said McMaster is a crony of corrupt politicians and consultants. Warren and Templeton sparred with each other of who is the "true" conservative.
Templeton, who entered the race in January 2017, did not refute the McMaster's lieutenant governor claim on the stage but she denied it in an interview after the debate.
"I bet he wishes I had," she said of his lieutenant governor choice.
Templeton said Trump's South Carolina campaign chief, Ed McMullen, reached out to her and asked that she consider being a potential running mate for McMaster. She was not interested in the No. 2 job and she told McMaster she planned to run for governor herself.
McMaster's campaign's during the debate shared texts between the governor and Templeton from soon after Thanksgiving 2016 where she discusses meeting with him about working for the Trump administration. The texts do not mention any talk about the lieutenant governor spot.
McMaster chose Travelers Rest business owner Pamela Evette as his running mate last year.
Earlier in the debate, McMaster and Warren tussled over the broken Interstate 526 bridge over the Wando River near Charleston. After the governor said the bridge was repaired ahead of schedule and under budget, Warren said he should not brag about fixing one bridge when the state needs a comprehensive plan to fix all roads and bridges.
"I'm a rookie when it comes to government but I'm not a rookie when it comes to business," he said in a tweak to McMaster's description of himself as a veteran coach on a winning streak.
A question about defining the corruption that so many candidates bring up on the campaign trail brought the Statehouse criminal probe to the debate stage.
Templeton took credit for some of the indictments because she spoke to the State Law Enforcement Division and FBI agents about marketing contracts from the State Ports Authority given to Richard Quinn & Associates, the powerful consultant who also worked with McMaster and other politicians.
The Columbia firm later pleaded guilty to failing to file as a lobbyist, while all six current and former lawmakers indicted in the probe have worked with Quinn.
She also asked if McMaster were under investigation because if he is indicted "we are handing our state over to the liberals."
McMaster, who has not been charged and is no longer with Quinn, deflected the attack by saying the only criminal activity he has participated in was as the state's top prosecutor from when he was the state attorney general.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who along with former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill is polling in low single digits, bashed McMaster for having Richard Quinn and his son, Rick, over to the Governor's Mansion soon after he was sworn into office in January 2017.
Rick Quinn resigned from the state House late last year after pleading guilty in the corruption probe.
McMaster did not respond directly.
"We have an open door at the mansion," he said. "We try to get all the children in there. Not long ago, we had (composer) Burt Bacharach in there for a concert. Mr. Bryant, I believe you have been there a few times yourself and you can come any time you like."
Bryant shot back, "When I move in in January, Henry, you're welcome to come see me."