Dem candidates updated headshots

Democratic candidates for South Carolina governor Phil Noble (from left), James Smith and Marguerite Willis. Provided

With their primary exactly four weeks away, Tuesday night's televised debate could be the most contentious meeting yet of the three Democrats in the South Carolina governor's race.

"This will be a chance for candidates to directly challenge each other in real time," said Gibbs Knotts, political science chair at the sponsoring College of Charleston.

Charleston business owner Phil Noble, Columbia state Rep. James Smith and Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis will argue the issues for an hour at the College of Charleston's Stern Center.

The debate, which will be moderated by ABC News 4 anchor Dean Stephens, starts at 7 p.m.

It will be televised live on four stations across the state: ABC News 4 Charleston, WACH FOX 57 Columbia, WPDE ABC 15 Myrtle Beach and WLOS ABC 13 Asheville. ABC News 4 Charleston will also offer a live-stream on its website.

Here's what to watch for when the candidates take the stage:

The likely target

Smith enters the debate as the contest's perceived favorite, leading the pack in both endorsements and fundraising. But polling indicates there is room for another to take the lead.

Last month, a nonpartisan Michigan-based research and polling firm found the Democrats were locked in a dead heat, with Smith and Noble tied with 27 percent of support from registered voters. Willis snagged 23 percent. 

Smith will likely take some heat for skipping a televised debate in late April at Furman University. He missed it because he was attending a candidate retreat held by the national Democratic Governors' Association in Chicago.

Appeals to African-Americans

In addition to increasing their name recognition, candidates will be working to appeal to a specific voting bloc: African-Americans.

"The vast majority of the state’s African-American voters participate in the Democratic Primary, and support from this group can make or break a candidate," Knotts said.

Smith has the endorsement of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the most powerful black Democrat in South Carolina and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House.

Both Noble and Willis chose African-Americans to be their respective running mates.

The common enemy

Aside from pointing fingers at President Donald Trump, expect Democratic candidates to take verbal swings at both Gov. Henry McMaster and the state Legislature, which has been dominated by Republicans for years. 

The 2018 legislative session ended without resolution on major issues, including the financial fallout from a pair of unfinished nuclear reactors.

All three Democratic candidates are advocating for ethics reform and have said there's too much corruption in Columbia.

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

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.