The three Democrats running to be South Carolina's next governor did not play nice during a televised debate Tuesday night, calling their opponents everything from "losers" to "part of the problem."

Charleston businessman Phil Noble, Columbia state Rep. James Smith and Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis sparred for an hour inside the College of Charleston's Stern Center where some of the 200 seats set up for the event sat empty.

Willis threw the first verbal punch of the night during the first question. It asked candidates how they planned to address South Carolina's infrastructure needs at a time when the Charleston-area experienced its second day of traffic congestion after a broken cable in a Wando River bridge closed westbound lanes of Interstate 526.

Willis accused Smith of not doing enough during his 22 years in the state Legislature to address the very problems he now says he would be able to fix if elected governor. 

"Representative Smith is right about one thing: There have been two decades of neglect in the Legislature, but he's been there for two decades," Willis said.

Noble said he would remove the politics from how roads get fixed. Smith blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature and promised to do what Gov. Henry McMaster did not: Sign a gas tax increase bill to fix the crumbling roads. The gas tax increase did pass last year after the Statehouse overrode McMaster's veto. 

Noble took aim at Smith for once having a previous "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. 

"My colleagues are intent on attacking me. I'm intent on attacking the problem," Smith said. 

Noble didn't let it go, using one of his three rebuttals to call Smith's rating from the NRA a moral issue and one that cannot be a part of the future of the Democratic Party.

"Until we have leaders that will stand up and challenge the NRA, we'll never have safe schools," Noble said.

Smith, who has faced these attacks from Noble multiple times on the campaign trail, used one of his three rebuttals of the night to address the claim he described as "absurd."

"I am the only candidate on this stage with an endorsement from Moms Demand Action," Smith said.

Noble used a second rebuttal to accuse Smith of "political double-talk."

The squabbles between the candidates continued, seeping into a question about their running mates for lieutenant governor who weren't in the room.

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Both Willis and Noble blasted Smith for picking Lancaster state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, saying it was indicative of Smith being too entrenched in Columbia politics to change the culture of corruption that looms over the Statehouse.

"It's really curious to see one of my colleagues choose a legislator (for a running mate) who actually served more time than me," Smith said, in a dig at Willis' running mate pick, state Sen. John Scott.

Scott was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1990, and would serve in that chamber until 2008 before winning a seat in the Senate. 

Despite the bickering, all three shared a common enemy: McMaster and the GOP-controlled Legislature. 

All three Democrats face each other in a June 12 primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 26.

No Democrat has won a governor's race in South Carolina since 1998.

The Republican candidates for governor will face each other Wednesday at 7 p.m. in a televised debate also at the College of Charleston.

The debate will be carried live on the following stations across the state: ABC News 4 Charleston, WACH FOX 57 Columbia, WPDE ABC 15 Myrtle Beach, and WLOS ABC 13 Asheville.

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

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.