- Associated Press - Thursday, October 25, 2018

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - In the closing days before the Nov. 6 general election, the men vying to be South Carolina’s next governor have given voters their final chance to see a side-by-side comparison of their stance on issues including tax cuts, medical marijuana and tariffs proposed by the Trump administration.

Gov. Henry McMaster and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. James Smith, met for their final debate with less than two weeks to go until Election Day. The debate at Greenville Technical College came a week after they first met on stage in Florence.

Unlike the primary debates, where candidates from their own party portrayed the longtime political figures as insiders who were part of a system that favored cronyism over equality, McMaster and Smith had to avoid accusing the other of being too close to South Carolina’s political system. In and around South Carolina’s politics for decades, McMaster has served as U.S. Attorney, state attorney general and chaired South Carolina’s Republican Party. Smith has served 22 years in the state legislature and is among the leaders of the House Democratic Caucus.

McMaster is backed by President Donald Trump, and was the first statewide elected official to endorse him in 2016. Asked about Trump’s tariff policies, McMaster said he has voiced his concerns to the president directly.

“I’m very concerned about it,” McMaster said. “That’s why we’re in constant touch.”

McMaster added that he supports Trump’s policies generally but has told him, “We do not want to have any tariffs that will hurt the people of South Carolina and our businesses.”

Smith has railed against McMaster’s plea that South Carolinians have patience with the administration’s overall tariff strategy.

During a contentious, five-way GOP primary, McMaster frequently mentioned Trump, reminding voters of his close ties to a president he said valued South Carolina and would listen to his concerns. On Thursday, he also noted that he would continue to stress to the president the need to finish a multibillion-dollar mixed-oxide fuel facility at the Savannah River Site currently slated to be mothballed under the Trump administration.

“I think when we’re able to finally finish this fight, it will be approved, and it will go ahead,” McMaster said, again referencing his relationship with the administration.

Smith pointed out Trump’s eleventh-hour trip to the state to campaign for McMaster in the primary runoff earlier this year, noting, “It helped you survive the primary, but that friendship has done very little to help South Carolina.”

When the candidates met onstage during their first debate, Smith immediately went on the offensive, criticizing what he saw as failures mounting up under McMaster and portraying him as out of touch with South Carolina’s needs, such as infrastructural improvements or an expansion of health care choices.

Asked Thursday about medical marijuana, Smith he would do “everything I can in supporting the people of this state in making that resource available.

McMaster deferred to state police, who have advocated against the measure: “When law enforcement is satisfied that it can be controlled, then that is a different story.”

McMaster - in office for nearly two years since Nikki Haley’s departure to join the Trump administration - continued to stress his recurrent theme that voters are better served by keeping him in office, pointing to jobs created on his watch.

This is the first time candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are running on the same ticket. The candidates vying for South Carolina’s No. 2 office, Republican business owner Pamela Evette and Democratic state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, debate on Oct. 29.

The debate series is sponsored by South Carolina ETV and The Post and Courier of Charleston.

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

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