Haley, Sheheen trade jabs in closing debate

FLORENCE, S.C. (WIS) — Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen and Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley had some contentious exchanges Tuesday night during the final gubernatorial debate at Francis Marion University.

It was the last of three debates as Sheheen tries to close a narrowing gap in the polls. Monday's debate was broadcast statewide by South Carolina Educational Television, and a debate last week was broadcast by Upstate station WSPA.

Haley asked voters to join her movement for fiscal responsibility and Sheheen asked voters to pick a governor they can trust. When the issue of ethics came up, both candidates unloaded.

"My opponent likes to bash me for being a lawyer," Sheheen said at one point during the debate. "You know what, I'd rather be a successful layer and rather have a successful lawyer as my next governor than an accountant who didn't pay her taxes."

"He's successful, alright," responded Haley. "In the first two years of being in the Senate, he became the fifth-highest-paid attorney in workers comp cases."

"It gets a little bit old listening to her preach to me when I have followed the ethics laws," said Sheheen. "I recuse myself when voting on commissions, when she had jobs like Wilbur Smith, when she was asked in the debate if she reported the income and she mislead the public."

"Senator, you have spent 80% of your advertising money attacking me and every director at the Department of Revenue and every ethics commissioner said I've done nothing wrong," Haley shot back.

The candidates again argued over the number of employees in the Department of Education. Haley again said the department has over 1,100 employees, while Sheheen countered that only about 880 of those positions have actually been filled due to budget cuts.

A fact check provided by the Department of Education shows Sheheen's figure to be correct. State Superintendent Jim Rex, who lost the Democratic primary to Sheheen, went so far as to call Haley's statements "untruths."

Sheheen says he'll do whatever it takes to make an interstate to Myrtle Beach a reality, while Haley says she can't support tolls or a national infrastructure bank. Both candidates said Interstate 73 is critical to economic development.

The idea to build an interstate to the heart of South Carolina's $18 billion tourism industry has languished for years. South Carolina's 90-mile portion of the interstate is expected to cost $2.5 billion.

Haley says she'll work with South Carolina's congressmen to make it happen but didn't specify how, except to say "we can't earmark that to death." Sheheen says things don't just happen on their own.

At the end of the debate, the moderator asked the candidates whether they like each other. Sheheen responded that he does like Haley, to which Haley responded that she "used to" like Sheheen.

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Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved. AP contributed to this report.