SC Governors Race: Dueling Fiscal Conservatives

Fireworks erupted during South Carolina's gubernatorial debate Tuesday night when Democratic candidate Vince Sheheen responded to accusations by Republican Nikki Haley campaign's that Sheheen reaped "huge profits from legal work done both defending and suing state agencies."

"My opponent likes to bash on me for being a lawyer. You know what? I'd rather be a successful lawyer and rather have a successful lawyer as my next governor than an accountant that didn't pay her taxes," Sheheen said, referring to reports that Haley has incurred fines for repeatedly filing her taxes late.

Sheheen also questioned his opponent's consulting work for an engineering firm with state contracts while also serving as a state legislator.

Jobs and the economy have dominated much of South Carolina's gubernatorial contest as the two fiscally conservative candidates try to gain advantage in a race that -- like many across the nation -- has tightened in the last month.

With the backing of Tea Party enthusiasts and endorsements from Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, Haley is still the favored candidate in the right-leaning Palmetto State.

However, Sheheen, a state senator with the backing of the state's Chamber of Commerce, has been eating into her once-comfortable double-digit lead.

An Oct. 19 Rasmussen poll shows Haley leading by 9 points, 47-38 percent with 11 percent of South Carolina voters undecided. That's is roughly half what it was a month ago.

Although an Insider Advantage poll taken the same day shows Haley with a more comfortable 14-point lead, 51-37 percent, the race may be tighter than either survey suggests, when considering other indicators like fundraising, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

"Sheheen has been very competitive in fundraising," Stewart said. "They're running neck and neck when it comes to the amount of money raised, which is unusual for a Democratic candidate in South Carolina, especially when you look at the last two gubernatorial races."

With both candidates competing as fiscal conservatives, the debate over economic issues has been more nuanced in South Carolina than in other parts of the country and nationally.

Meanwhile, other matters, like allegations made earlier this year of marital infidelity by Haley with two Republican operatives, appear to have had little effect on her campaign, Stewart said.

"Part of it could be a gender issue," Stewart said. "Is it impolite about these men to talk rudely about a lady in the South? Part of it, of course, is that these allegations are unproven. And maybe part of it is the fact the folks who are supporting Haley, who are maybe a little more Libertarian in nature, just don't care."

Other moral and social issues, which usually play a significant role in South Carolina political races, have also taken a back seat to the economy for South Carolina voters.

"Things like the Confederate flag, gender issues or race issues aren't as much in play right now as the whole fiscal crisis," she said.

Tuesday night's contentious debate ended with a bit of comic relief. The moderator asked, "Do you two like each other?"

"Yes," Sheheen replied.

"I used to," Haley said.

Laughter erupted from the audience and the candidates.