James Smith in Afghanistan tv ad

A screenshot taken from Democrat James Smith's first ad for the general election for South Carolina governor. Smith is shown on patrol during his combat Army deployment in Afghanistan a decade ago, part of the ad's theme about his commitment to service.

COLUMBIA — Don't know who James Smith is? You're not alone.

The South Carolina Democratic nominee for governor's first ad in the general election, debuting this week, is a minute-long introduction in a state where roughly four in 10 voters recognize his name despite spending more than two decades as one of his party's leading Statehouse lawmakers.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, on the other hand, has double the name recognition of Smith while running his seventh statewide campaign in 32 years. This is Smith's first statewide bid.

With the edge in voter awareness, as well his well-publicized backing from President Donald Trump, McMaster and Republican Governors Association have started with a different strategy than Smith. They began the general election campaign by attacking the Democrat for being absent for a key veto vote this year and his record on voting against lower taxes.

"They haven't said anything (positive) about Henry," Smith told The Post and Courier on Monday. 

Conventional wisdom says Smith will have to go on the attack later in the campaign, especially as McMaster and his allies are expected to hammer voters with reminders of the Democrat's more liberal stances on abortion and gun control. Those attacks could blunt Smith's efforts to woo Republicans and independents dissatisfied with the direction of the GOP under Trump or disinterested in McMaster, who is not an energizing candidate.

"We look forward to reminding voters of the difference between out-of-touch, socialist-wannabe James Smith and the governor’s record of cutting taxes and fighting for South Carolina jobs," McMaster spokeswoman Carolina Anderegg said.

But Smith said he intends to keep to a positive campaign even as the ads switch focus from his life narrative to issues. He complained Monday about a pro-McMaster ad last week that cuts off a recording of what he says mid-sentence without context.  

"It's a real disservice to voters to campaign in that way, and I won't do that," Smith said. "He's just trying to make people believe things that simply aren't true. It's just so pathetic."

While his pledge might resonate with some voters tired of recent bitter political talk from both sides churned by Trump's election, Smith is not shying away from what he calls "contrasts" with McMaster.

Smith is quick to offer that the governor vetoed the 2017 roads bill that included the state's first gas tax hike in 30 years out of political desire to please conservative voters rather than fix highways and bridges.

The McMaster campaign said Smith "has pilloried Henry’s character and already launched attacks on the governor, which have garnered rebuke from members of his own party." Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, criticized Smith last month for making a political issue out of layoffs at a Winnsboro TV maker after Smith slammed McMaster for not doing enough to stop Trump's tariffs. 

Still, for the Democrat to make significant progress in the Republican-heavy state, Smith must overcome that so many voters don't even know who he is. 

Smith is well-known in South Carolina's capital city where his family has lived for several generations.

Since 1997, Smith has represented a district through downtown Columbia that includes the Statehouse, the S.C. State Fairgrounds, Williams-Brice Stadium and the Governor's Mansion. He was the House Democratic leader 15 years ago, and he has remained one of the more influential members in the chamber.

But his political background does not play a large role in Smith's new campaign ad. Narrated by his wife Kirkland, an artist, the spot tells the story of him resigning his post as a military lawyer to join the infantry to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Kirkland Smith talks about how she worried that she would get bad news every time the phone rang and that once she got a call from members of the Taliban who had picked up her husband's phone dropped during a firefight.  

Talking about his deployment could be key for James Smith in a state with eight major military bases and a population that has the nation's fifth largest percentage of the veterans.

The ad stresses Smith's commitment to service, a theme he says reflects South Carolina values that he plans to carry through the next nine weeks of the race.

In an interview, he said South Carolinians deserve the kind of commitment from their elected leaders that he got from fellow soldiers in war.

"They should never have to doubt that they are there for you," Smith said.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

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.