- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - The two major challengers to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used their final debate Tuesday to attack her handling of problems at the state’s child welfare agency and what they said is her lack of support for a law to take guns away from people convicted of criminal domestic violence.

The theme of the debate at Furman University was health care and education, giving the challengers more opportunities to go after the Republican incumbent than they had during the first debate, which dealt with Haley’s signature issue, the economy.

Haley cited examples from her time in office to dispute the criticism, engaging more with Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who ran against her in 2010, than with independent candidate Tom Ervin.

Tuesday’s second debate is the final scheduled one before the Nov. 4 election.

DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

Ervin said he decided to run - and spend nearly $3.5 million of his own money on the campaign - because of how Haley had handled problems at the Department of Social Services. He said she stood by while an incompetent leader of the agency let children be abused and killed because of poor management.

“She knew when she took office that we had a crisis at DSS. She knew case workers had too many cases assigned to them. And yet, she sent her Cabinet appointee over to the Senate investigative committee and lied about the numbers,” said Ervin, a former judge and legislator who calls himself a conservative Republican, but is running as an independent.

Sheheen said Haley’s handling of DSS shows she isn’t honest. “Kids have died. Kids have been harmed. And Gov. Haley has covered up the numbers of what is happening,” the state senator from Camden said.

Haley said DSS is one of the hardest agencies to deal with and her heart breaks as a mother because parents abuse their children.

“This is not an easy agency,” she said. “I don’t take it lightly.”

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE GUN BAN

Haley did not answer a question about whether she supported taking guns from people convicted of criminal domestic violence, a step recommended by a number of law enforcement agencies and groups that work with victims.

Sheheen said he was stunned Haley didn’t say she supported a ban.

Ervin said he was stunned too. “When someone is convicted of domestic violence in South Carolina, they have no business with loaded guns in the home,” he said.

Both challengers said they support the U.S. constitutional right to bear arms.

HALEY’S CLOSING

The governor was allowed to have the last word. She used her closing statement to ask voters to look at her record, which she noted included bringing more jobs to South Carolina. She added that she plans to improve education and the state’s roads in her second term.

“It is a great day in South Carolina,” Haley said, using the signature line of her first term. “But ladies and gentlemen, we’re just getting started.”

MINOR CANDIDATES

French stuck to his libertarian philosophy, suggesting legalizing marijuana could bring the state enough tax revenue to give each school $188,000. He said that money could be used to raise teacher pay in a competitive fashion, instead of across the board. French was against Medicaid expansion and Common Core federal education standards.

Reeves got most of the night’s laughs. He frequently forgot the question asked if he wasn’t the first one to answer. And he had the most outlandish ideas.

“I will double the pay of everybody in the state of South Carolina. If you don’t want it doubled, vote for one of them,” said Reeves, who offered no details of how he would find the money beyond legalizing marijuana.

NO MORE DEBATES

Tuesday’s debate is the last time the candidates are scheduled to be together before the Nov. 4 election. The two debates between the gubernatorial candidates marked the fewest that have been held in an election season in at least 20 years. That upset Ervin and Sheheen, who wanted more chances to be with Haley and also wanted debates without the minor party candidates on stage.

In 2010, Sheheen and Haley had three debates, and Reeves, the only other candidate on the ballot, was not invited. In the 2006 governor’s race there were five debates; in 2002, nine; in 1998, at least five; and in 1994, at least three, according to archives of The Associated Press and state newspapers.

___

Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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