WEST ASHLEY, SC (WCSC) - WEST ASHLEY, SC (WCSC) - The four Republican gubernatorial candidates squared off Wednesday night in Charleston in a candidates forum moderated by a local television news anchor.
U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster debated the issues in the span of half an hour. The candidates discussed their platforms on job growth, the state's ailing school system, a situation exacerbated by recent budget cuts.
However, the night started with fire when Haley and Bauer responded to allegations made by one of Bauer's former fund raisers.
Bauer said he asked for Larry Marchant's resignation after the story surfaced, but Haley called the ordeal "disgusting politics" and attributed the recent personal attacks to her double-digit lead in the polls.
In the two weeks since Haley stretched her lead in the polls and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin gave her an endorsement, two allegations of affairs have surfaced. The first came from Will Folks, a former staffer for current SC governor Mark Sanford.
Bauer was asked to respond to the allegations and firing Marchant. Haley accused the Bauer campaign of fishing to story Tuesday night and only firing Marchant after no one in the media would take it seriously with him still on the staff.
"I've talked to Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. Sarah Palin in the past couple of days and they both said to expect this once we saw the lead and they both said it won't stop until the end of the election," said Haley after the forum ended.
"I have never spent a dime on opposition research. I don't play that game," said Bauer.
Moderator Bill Sharpe then directed the four candidates to the unemployment problems that have plagued the state.
All four candidates supported revamping the existing tax structure to make it more alluring to businesses, including eliminating the small business income tax.
In education, McMaster said he would push for more funding earlier in a child's education. "The real problem is early childhood education," he said.
Both McMaster and Haley said they wanted to see more opportunities for students to go into vocational and trade schools. Haley said she wanted to see merit-based pay for teachers and job shadowing programs for students that are not gearing up for academic institutions.
When asked about further support of offshore drilling in light of the ongoing issues in the Gulf of Mexico, all four candidates said they would continue to pursue offshore drilling opportunities -- cautiously.
"All of our nightmares have come true watching what's going on in the Gulf coast. Nuclear is the way we need to be going," said McMaster.
Barrett and Bauer both said they would more aggressive pursue natural gas. Barrett said the state's four nuclear reactors represent a $25 billion investment if they were used properly.
Haley said she wanted to see more accountability in the process, especially when things go wrong as they have in the Gulf. "When there's an airplane crash, we don't stop all the planes from flying. We examine what went wrong and fix it. We need to do the same thing with the oil companies," she said.
All of the candidates supported Arizona's recent immigration law and said they would support pushing a similar bill in South Carolina.
"Arizona's [law] is great. Ours will be better and I will ensure it is enforced," said McMaster.
The primary is less than a week away and the GOP race has been tightly contested in recent weeks.