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South Carolina gov hopefuls clash in 1st of 2 debates

Democratic state Rep. James Smith and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster meet in the South Carolina governor debate, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 at Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center in Florence, S.C. (Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — With less than three weeks until Election Day, the men vying to be South Carolina’s next governor got a chance Wednesday to begin drawing their final contrasts as voters prepare to decide between them.

The debate in Florence is the first of two general election debates for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith before they face voters Nov. 6. McMaster – in office for nearly two years since Nikki Haley’s departure to join the Trump administration – stressed that voters are better served by keeping him in office, pointing to job creation and enthusiasm he said he’s heard from foreign companies looking to expand in the state.

McMaster, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor who has been in and around state government for decades, touted the “great team in South Carolina” of which he said he’s honored to be a part. Without directly referencing President Donald Trump, who has endorsed his campaign, McMaster also several times reminded voters of his connection to the administration, saying he has its “full support.”

Smith, a state lawmaker for more than two decades, portrayed McMaster as out of touch with South Carolina’s needs, like expanded health care choices or infrastructural improvements.

“Henry, if this is winning, I would hate to see what losing looks like to you,” Smith said.

The candidates were also asked about how they’d tackle future natural disasters, like recent devastating flooding that impacted the state following Hurricane Florence. Saying that McMaster previously vetoed attempts to fund flood relief, Smith also noted McMaster’s veto of last year’s gas tax increase, a long-debated measure that passed with bipartisan support in an effort to fund infrastructural changes like road improvements. Lawmakers overrode the veto nearly unanimously.

McMaster, arguing that his team’s response to Hurricane Florence “got plaudits from all over the country,” also pointed to an executive order he recently issued to create the South Carolina Floodwater Commission, which is charged with studying ways to mitigate coastal and river flooding in the future.

“We’re going to have more storms. We’re going to have more flooding, and we have to plan for the future,” McMaster said.

Unlike in their respective primary debates, which focused largely on personality differences, there were more policy distinctions drawn Wednesday night. Smith, saying he’d accept federal money when it’s in the state’s best interest but saying improvements to the state’s health care system are drastically needed. McMaster, saying he would accept needed funds as long as it “does not come with strings attached to it,” advocated the expansion of programs like telemedicine rather than putting more into Medicaid.

Both men were asked to weigh in on a months-long probe into state government corruption. Neither Smith nor McMaster have been accused of wrongdoing, but both men’s names were mentioned in the State Grand Jury report released last week. McMaster’s longtime political consultant was charged, but charges were dropped in return for his cooperation.

Saying he had never been misled by consultant Richard Quinn, McMaster pointed out that his primary opponents’ attempts to tie him to corruption had failed and stressed his own role in achievements in state ethics reform. Smith, who said his name was only mentioned tangentially, said he would continue to argue for more transparency in state government.

McMaster and Smith meet next week for their final debate. Their lieutenant governor running mates debate at the end of this month.

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Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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